Saturday saw the first races at Aintree since the latest round of modifications to the course. There were no serious falls in either the Becher Chase or the Grand Sefton, which will have been a relief to both the Bloody Hopeless Amateurs (BHA) and to the animal welfare organisations that have pressed for the Grand National fences to be made easier.
Despite this, the first test of the changed fences could not be declared completely successful. In the review of the National course two fences were identified as causing particular problems: Becher's Brook and the plain fence two jumps before it. Despite alterations to both these fences in September they were the only two obstacles to produce fallers in the Becher Chase.
Jamie Stier, director of regulation at the BHA, reminded the jockeys before the race of the changes and the need to ride responsibly. He and fellow director Tim Morris also met with course officials to discuss progress in communication approaches so that the public is kept fully informed of all safety measures in place at the National next year.
Stier said, "We are pleased with the way the fences jumped and the way the jockeys rode the course. They rode a sensible tempo, given the (very soft) ground conditions."
Jockeys and trainers, too, seemed comfortable with the changes that have been made, with both Timmy Murphy and Paddy Brennan saying that they had not led to them having to present their mounts any differently. Aidan Coleman, who fell from Abbeybraney at Becher's Brook, was also OK with the alterations. "They've done a good job. Due to the public outcry, they had to do something and I think they've just done enough without taking the character away from the place, so fair play to them. I think that's enough and it should be left like that for good now."
The day's racing at Aintree was not without incident. The BHA's other major hobbyhorse of recent months, the whip rules, claimed Coleman as their latest victim. He pushed and cajoled Tim Vaughan's Stewarts House to a half-length victory in the Grand Sefton, but also used his whip 11 times; three more than the limit for jump racing, to hold off Paul Carberry riding Linnell.
Stier welcomed Coleman back to the weighing room with the challenge, "What are you going to do to me?" Provocative or what?
In the day's last race, the Grand Sefton, claiming rider Shane Byrne picked up a spare ride on board Pilgrims Lane when Paddy Brennan cried off suffering from dehydration. However, Milton Harris, who was representing the horseâ€™s trainer, Martin Keighley, claimed that Brennan thought the ground was too soft for the horse, and had refused to ride. "That's not his decision. It's the ownerâ€™s or the trainerâ€™s and we wanted to run," said an angry Harris, before adding that the horseâ€™s owner, Sue Brown, was considering whether to make a claim against the jockey. Despite producing evidence from the on course doctor, the stewards referred the matter to the BHA.
Pilgrims Lane went no further than the third fence. After a sticky jump at the first, he blundered again at The Chair, unseating Byrne. Whether it was the change of jockey or the state of the going that led to his undoing weâ€™ll never know, though no doubt Brennan will point to the early departure of Pilgrims Lane if he is called before the BHA's disciplinary panel.