The best sporting news of the year is that no horses perished in the Grand National at Aintree on Saturday. In recent years the animal welfare lobby has put pressure on the organisers to make changes to the race, and the team took steps to try and put a stop to the unaccountable rise in horse fatalities over the last decade.
It’s a race which combines a huge number of variables, demanding not only speed, jumping ability but also tremendous stamina. Run over four and a half miles, sheer exhaustion also makes mistakes by jockeys and horses more likely.
An added factor is the size of the field or number of horses taking part. The bunching of a large number of horses all jumping the same huge obstacle at the same time has been likened to running a Formula One race on the M25.
This year Aintree officials have spent almost £250,000 on modifying the course: lowering fences, making them out of softer materials and reducing the drop on the far side of Beecher’s Brook. Previously this fence was described by one jockey as being like ‘jumping off the end of the universe’.
The solid wooden cores of all the fences have been replaced with either plastic or birch, which is more flexible and softer on the horses. The argument here is that if horses are not injured when they accidentally hit a fence, then they are less likely to fall at the next.
In addition, the starting line was moved further away from the bandstand, as the recent spate of false starts due to the jockeys not being able to hear the starting gun cannot have helped either horse or rider confidence.
Writing in the Telegraph, experienced jockey Tony McCoy, who was unseated at the chair, wrote that the reduced number of horses in the race also helped the forty riders and horses to come home safely. ‘Aintree have put a lot of thought, time and money into the changes and I do not think there was a jockey in the weighing room afterwards who was not happy with what they had done.’
Based on past form, the Grand National is a hundred times more likely to result in a horse fatality than a flat race. But this year only two horses fell with six jockeys unseated, while it was the first time ever that the entire field was still in contention up to the Canal Turn. Hopefully a new beginning for the nation’s favourite horse race.
Picture: Auroras Encore, Winner 2013 Grand National, ridden by Ryan Mania