Grand National safety and welfare proposals

The British Horseracing Authority has concluded its detailed review of the Grand National. Its report, The Grand National: A Review of Safety and Welfare, was published today. It runs to 55 pages and contains 30 recommendations designed to enhance safety on the Grand National course and to ensure the welfare of horses.

Alterations to the National course particularly affecting fences one, four and Becher’s Brook were announced earlier in the year and have already been put in place. The remaining recommendations fall into three main areas: qualifying conditions for horses; eligibility of jockeys; and a range of activities designed to improve both animal welfare and the public understanding of what they see during and after the race.

Few horses under the age of seven take part in the Grand National, and none have won it since Ally Sloper in 1915. Granted, for many years six-year-olds were not allowed to take part, but since they were re-admitted in 1999 only 11 have done so, and eight of these came from the Pipe yard. As only two these had finished, and those each in 15th place, the BHA concluded that six-year-olds make no meaningful contribution to the race, and has therefore recommended that the minimum age for participation is raised to seven.

Looking further at the suitability of horses to take part, the review considered horses with what it calls doubtful stamina or a non-staying profile, which it defined as those that had never or rarely run in a steeplechase of 3 miles or further. Around 30 such horses had contested the race since 2000, and 13 of these had parted company with their rider in the first couple of minutes of the race. Of the eight that completed only one finished in the frame.

Consultation with trainers and jockeys suggested there was no need to introduce any restriction on these horses. However, the review group took a different view and, on the basis that the race is primarily a test of stamina, has recommended that any horse that has not won or finished in the next three places in a chase of 3 miles or further should be excluded from race.

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In terms of rider eligibility, the current conditions for the Grand National essentially require the jockey to have; a) ridden at least fifteen Steeplechase/Hurdle winners (combined) under Rules by the time of final declaration. The BHA can apply an exemption for jockeys who have ridden 10-14 winners in (undefined) exceptional circumstances. Curiously this rule also applies to the Topham Chace, but not to the Becher and Grand Sefton Chases, also run over the National fences.

Again trainers and jockeys felt these criteria were appropriate, and that there was no need to stipulate a minimum number of those wins to have been in steeplechases. They could not imagine the situation arising of a jockey being offered a ride in the National having only ridden winners over hurdles. Again, the review group had a different take on things, and although the report acknowledges that there is no compelling statistical evidence, they recommended that a minimum 10 of the 15 required wins should be in steeplechases.

They also proposed removing the anomaly around which races this rule applies to, so that in future it will form part of the rider eligibility for any race run over the National course.

The third set of recommendations relate to various issues affecting the safety and well being of the racehorses. Outside the race itself, all the major jump-training centres should provide a well-maintained Aintree-style schooling fence for trainers to use. I'd have thought that most trainers did this in any case; it'd be barking to send a horse to the National without any idea as to whether it's likely to be able to cope with the unique fences there.

At the race itself the first objective of Aintree racecourse should be to provide ground that is on the soft side of good, with a guarantee that it will be no firmer than good. To help with this, there may be a need to improve the irrigation on the first part of the course down to Becher's Brook, not least because this is the part of the course on which the majority of falls occur.

Tim Morris, Director of Equine Science and Welfare at the BHA referred to the public perception of the race. He said, "Events at the 2011 Grand National were upsetting to people directly involved in the sport and for those who follow it. The deaths of two horses, alongside several other factors, ensured there was significant media and public attention on the issue of safety and welfare in the Grand National.”

One of those factors was that several horses appeared severely distressed, with hosepipes being used to cool them down and oxygen being administered. The review felt that this negative image was increased because the cooling down was taking part on the pull up area of the track itself at a time when this was both crowded and noisy.

Morris again: “We have learned some valuable lessons from the events of 2011, one of which is that we need to work harder and be more effective at communicating our positive, proactive welfare work. For example, the scenes of jockeys dismounting water and oxygen being made available to horses post the Grand National were mistakenly interpreted as evidence of extreme fatigue on the part of the horses, when in fact the measures were designed to be pre-planned and preventative."

As a result, the review calls for changes to the pull up area to be introduced before next year's race, with an emphasis on speedy access for trainers and stable staff to horses, and tighter media control to give more space for the animals to be attended to.

The report is now handed over to the Aintree Executive for implementation. I can't see much to quibble at in what's being proposed, and it certainly doesn't have any of the major changes that were being bandied about in the immediate aftermath of this year's race. Yes, there will be changes, but we won't actually see many of them, which must be one of the ways of judging whether the report has effectively balanced the needs of safety and welfare with maintaining the integrity and unique nature of the Grand National.

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