Is radical change the only answer for the long-term survival of the Grand National?

In the last 6 Grand Nationals, including today’s, 6 horses have died. Graphic Approach died some time after being injured in the 2007 race and I have not counted him.

In the same period, 5 horses died in The Topham and 1 in The Foxhunters. Six horses also died over hurdles at Aintree in the same period and two horses died in NH flat races (4 died over fences on The Mildmay course).

I could have carried on and dissected the stats by runner, by comparison to other courses etc., but in the end what will matter is how racing explains itself to the public on days like these and, crucially, how it keeps the welfare organisations on its side. I’ve long thought that the RSPCA’s support for NH racing is a short-head away from being untenable. The whip controversy did substantial damage to racing’s relationship with the RSPCA and I think today’s fatalities will see the boardroom door at RSPCA HQ finally slammed on the Grand National and, sooner rather than later, on NH racing itself.

I suspect there might well be some table-banging going on at the next Heineken board meeting too (they own the John Smith’s brand). And what about Jockey Club Racecourses (JCR)? They hold a prime hand of UK racecourses – Aintree included. JCR put all their profits back into racing but they run a tightly-focused organisation acutely tuned to the commercial impact of their decisions.  They’ll have little doubt that turnstile income won’t be affected by fatalities, but the change to CH4, the sensitivity of sponsors and the vulnerability of their brand to Animal Rights groups will need to be taken into consideration.

“They either take to them or they don’t”

So what is it about the race that causes carnage? Speed, say many professionals, and the temptation to go faster has been heightened by the changes intended to make the fences easier, the elimination of drops and shaving of heights.

Speed contributes, but I think the fences are the main problem.  Steeplechasers spend 99% of their careers jumping park fences (the standard black birch barriers you find everywhere except Aintree and at Cross Country courses).  Did you see Synchronised today when AP let him have a look at the first fence before cantering back to the start? Something spooked him there – it might have been the crowds or a camera or something, but it could have been the fence itself.

Why do some horses run well time and again at Aintree (Always Waining anyone?), while many pull up,  fall or refuse? Could it be simple unfamiliarity or fear?

The Grand National fences are built on a foundation of solid wooden stakes dressed with tons of spruce.  They’re dauntingly big and wide with an unusual colour, from a horse’s viewpoint. Racehorses like routine. Most don’t relish being asked  to face something they’ve never previously encountered.  Some, a rare few, find the experience refreshing and galvanising; others see it as an ordeal.

The performance of horses over Cross Country courses – Cheltenham’s being the only UK example – back up this theory. The same horses do well on these unusual tracks time and time again.

“Lessons will be learned”

Aintree and Racing plc cannot simply keep pleading this argument after each Grand National. Two horses died last year: ‘improvements’ were made: two horses died this year.

What will result from the review of this year’s race?

My opinion is that the only long-term solution will be to strip away the spruce, burn the wooden stakes and build standard steeplechase fences of regular height. A £1m prize will ensure the quality of the race and size of the field is not diluted, The extreme distance will still make it a unique test.  The public will not be discouraged from betting on it, horses will no longer be taken by surprise and more of them will survive the race.

The nostalgia branded on my heart will mourn the passing of these fences (I had the honour of writing the words inscribed on Red Rum’s gravestone and of being present, alongside Ginger at his burial), but I’d sooner see these fences consigned to history than lose the race itself.


11 thoughts on “Is radical change the only answer for the long-term survival of the Grand National?

  1. uh hello, racing doesnt have to explain itself to the public . this countrys already gone at producing anything apart from hairdressers and nail technicians, the leisure industry is our last chance……… what did you say in yoiur article ” but in the end what will matter is how racing explains itself to the public on days like these”…………. but you dont mention why it matters. are they going to stop coming racing, NO because they dont go racing they watch big brother and britains got talent……… get with the game !!!!!!!!!!

  2. Well put. Balanced article. Yes, i did notice the reaction of Synchronised to that fence before the off. Had he been mine, I would have withdrawn him. But for me it has always been about the number of horses. 30 maximum for me. It is all about getting the balance right. We must not dilute the race too much. It must remain special. But for the right reasons. Personally, glad it is over for another year. Just feel for connections of both lost horses.

  3. The deaths of the two horses today didnt seem to me to have anything to do with the size of the fences or the way they are built. Synchronised wasnt spooked by the first fence on the way to the start, as he eventually ran right up to it pre race and then also jumped it in the race, he was already a poor jumper of fences as we had seen at Cheltenham in the Gold Cup and many people knew he would fall at some stage but he was allowed to take his chance by connections. If you look closely at his jump of Bechers he skewed it when jumping just as he had done at the last at Cheltenham and thats what led him to fall today. As for According to Pete he was brought down by another horse which had already fallen at Bechers, he had jumped the fence perfectly well as he had the previous 21. The deaths of these two horses today could have happened at any jumps track, its just that Aintree is always in the spotlight because its the Grand National and has a huge audience, there are deaths of horses in racing on a weekly basis but you just never hear of them because they are not considered news worthy. I agree that the jockeys ride the horses too fast in the early part of the race but I’m not sure how you can stop that especially when they keep making the course easier. The constant tinkering with the course and fences has not improved anything fatality wise, there have always been deaths at the track as there have at Cheltenham and everywhere else.

  4. I sometimes think the course is wrong, it’s really neither one thing or another. It has elements of a cross country course but the speed of a flat trak – I think slowing the horses down would solve some problems. I down think the public would mind this, make the course more like a Crystal Cup type course.

  5. I do think it’s about time that someone -Paul Bittar perhaps?- explained to the non-racegoing public & media, on a non-racing programme, that the way to slow horses down is to NOT lower fences. That only encourages connections of low faster jumpers to enter.

    Also, I do think that so long as there are 40 runners then I’m afraid the chances of a solid jumper like According to Pete being brought down remain high. I would reduce the number of starters to 35 & if there was room, make some of the fences wider across the course so it was easier for riders & horses to be sighted. Is that possible?

    1. anyone with the VAGUEST IDEA of the game knows the answer is NOT to lower fences, but its all gone so far its past saving, ooooh look mr and mrs bloggs can be told that the horsey has to jump less of an obstacle that should do it ! why ?? should someone explain to the non racing public ? do you think they care ? we are being told they care, does boxing have to be explained to the non boxing public, was sennas death explained to the non formula1 public…….. how pathetic do you want to be with this….. if anyone can remember Neptunes Collognes was involved in a great finish to the 2012 but no.
      Analysis, criticisms, so called expert views, analyse again, change, rules, perception, …….. which all equals lack of enjoyment..

  6. It’s very difficult to argue with your comments Joe.

    This was one of the greatest finishes to any race anyone has ever seen (particularly taking into account the length of the spectacle) yet post race comments are overshadowed by the other events on the track.

    We saw how distressed Claire Balding was (Channel 4 need her badly in my book) at what should have been a nostalgic look (with smiles on out faces) at the race from a BBC perspective and yet we did so with a bitter taste in our mouths.

    You more than anyone out here in the real world Joe knows the Aintree track and whatever comment you offer to the powers that be will do for me Sir.

    The point of the ‘spruce’ is well made and whilst it looks nice, if that’s what it takes to bring an end to the fear that some horses might possess, then get rid of it, pure and simple.


    1. Claire Balding makes a sporting event appear as disastrous as an earthquake where thousands of lives have been lost and people are still buried , channel 4 just need to cover the race and let people have there own thoughts ! (remember that, thinking for yourself)

  7. The problem with the National is not the fences, but the jockeys – they ride the first mile far too fast and that causes the horses to fall. Take the 1st fence of the race; it actually has the highest number of fallers of any fence in the race – when it’s the 1st fence in the National. When it’s NOT the 1st fence (ie when it’s the 5th fence in the Topham, Becher or Foxhunter chase races) it is the safest fence on the course. What does that tell you? The jockeys ride their horses too fast in the first mile of the National.
    I have campaigned to have the start moved to the back-straight of the Mildmay course so that the runners have to make a sharp-left turn before approaching the 1st fence. There would be no “cavalry charge” start and horses would approach the fence in a more sedate manner.
    Syncronised actually ran for at least another mile after falling at Bechers, jumping fences for fun. How he suffered his fatal injury, I don’t know – but his death was not due to falling at Bechers Brook.
    According To Pete landed on top of the faller On His Own – he had no chance of evading the stricken horse and it was something that could have happened at any track and does so on a regular basis.
    Did a horse not break a leg and be destroyed at Royal Ascot last summer?
    If horseracing loses the National, then it loses jump racing too.
    Remember, no racing = no horses = no green fields with trees and hedges in the countryside of England.
    Groups like Animal Aid don’t want people to have anything to do with animals, full stop – not even owning a goldfish.

  8. We expect so much from our animals, as a horse owner they really want to please us at whatever the cost. Training these athletes doesn’t enter into our minds that death could be the result. In many sports new and better designs and safety features exist to promote excitement for all spectators. Perhaps faster is in and lesser heights/spans to jump might still provide the adrenalin factor. We are not barbaric and when troubleshooting these occurrences, keep in mind that all such sports events, generally improve their safety provisions, whether human or animal participation. Horses are by nature prone to injury but we do not have to help it along, everything in today’s design are regulated by more and more conscience innovators.

  9. Good piece – and radical change is needed. But I’m not sure removing the spruce is the answer – it’s kind of what makes the National different today.
    This year’s deaths shouldn’t be used as the only reason for changes – making the course safer to reduce fatalities everywhere must be the concern. The deaths of Synchronised and According To Pete only really support the idea that the number of runners should be reduced – to around 30 – and that loose horses need to be removed quicker – perhaps with outriders (although they’re not infallible).
    That aside, there’s a big difference between fence height and drops on the landing side. As the RSPCA rightly says, jumps like Becher’s, with a drop, are not expected by the horses and they land with too much weight on their front. Loose horses aren’t expecting it either. It’s about time the drops were rid of. Level-ground fences – like the Chair, the biggest on the track – are safer because of the way they cause the land.
    The other problem is the speed during the first mile. A bend from the Mildmay course has been mentioned, but can you imagine 40 horses dashing and cramming round a sharp bend going well? Moving the start further towards the Melling road is probably needed, as is heavier watering of the initial straight.
    Two questions. A question on fence-width: did the fences get narrowed slightly a couple years ago to make room to bypass them?
    And do we know which go faster over the GN first fence – the Topham or National runners? If the former then that clouds things a bit.
    The main thing though is that the National is not barbaric and will be around for longer if it makes changes – bigger than tweaks – now.

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