Following the now annual hullabaloo from animal welfare groups and the review of the race that follows it, the British Horseracing Authority and Aintree have decided to reduce the distance of the race by moving the start 90 yards down the track. Their argument is that the area around the current start is too noisy, and the packed grandstands on either side of the track there create an intense claustrophobia, which gets to both horses and jockeys. Moving the start 90 yards down the track and away from these stands should make it easier for the starter to communicate his instructions to the jockeys and produce a more controlled start.
This same idea was discussed just a year ago and found no support from jockeys, and very few trainers felt it would do nothing to improve safety. The run to the first fence will still be 330 yards, which jockeys claim is three times the distance needed to avoid the speedy cavalry charge which is a major contribution to early fallers. To be fair to Aintree and the BHA, they are not claiming this as a safety measure, but something that will reduce the appearance of uncontrolled chaos that often surrounds the start of the National.
The BHA announced other changes to the race that do focus more on safety. Levelling of the ground on the landing side of the first fence took place for this year’s race, and similar work will be completed before 2013 at fences four, five and thirteen. December’s meeting will see a new design for some of the fences with a new central frame, but Becher’s Brook will not be changed. There’s £100,000 to spend improving irrigation, and a new catching pen near the fourth fence for rounding up early fallers. Jockeys will he held back further from the starting line before they are told to line up, and a more visible starting tape will be used.
The announcement met with very divided opinions. Racing professionals were strongly behind the changes, but the race was put on a yellow card by the RSPCA. Jamie Stier, speaking for the BHA emphasised the importance of a controlled start. He said, “Our objective in recommending changes to the start is to identify ways in which we can create a calmer and more controlled environment for both horse and rider. We recognise there is pressure and tension before the race and we want to alleviate that where possible.”
That’s fine, but his next comment rather left the stable door open for critics to push through. Stier added, “It’s possible that a more controlled environment at the start, along with reducing the distance between the start and the first fence, could have the effect of reducing the early speed of the race. If this were to be the case, it would be an added benefit.” Yes, except that last year jockeys said it wouldn’t make a difference.
Paul Struthers of the Professional Jockeys’ Association took a helicopter view, without commenting on any individual measures, saying, “We welcome the sensible changes that the BHA and Aintree have announced today concerning the John Smith’s Grand National. We believe the approach taken has been considered and appropriate. The PJA as well as individual jockeys were consulted and out input was clearly welcomed. These relatively modest yet important modifications will hopefully be for the long term benefit of the world’s greatest steeplechase.” Hopefully, yes. But was it a different group of jockeys offering their opinion or have last year’s contingent changed their minds? There’s little evidence offered in support of the changes, and that leads me to be sceptical of their benefit.
That’s not to say I’m in agreement with the much more drastic changes the RSPCA would like introduced. Top of their list are a smaller field of 30 runners for the race and major changes to Becher’s Brook, two of the defining features of the race, which if introduced, would make it a fundamentally different event.
Regular critic of the race, David Muir, the RSCPA’s equine consultant said, “We put forward several options, some of which have been undertaken and two of which have not – the reduction of the field and a fundamental change at Becher’s. They have resolved one element by a levelling of the area between the brook and the landing zone. That’s a positive. Bur from an RSPCA perspective they are on a yellow card. If it works, great, we can live with it, but if there is a major incident again – fatalities or a large number of fallers – we’ll be lobbying for fundamental change.”
For once, though, Muir was restrained in setting out his long-term goal, and pretty much captured an objective everyone would subscribe to. He said, “I’m not seeking change. I’m seeking improvement. I don’t want to see the ethos of the raced going. What we are looking at is examining what exists and improving it to lower the risk to horses that take part. That way we will end up with a lot more horses finishing and a lot more exciting race.”
But as is so often the case with a grand statement, the problem is not in the objective itself, but what has to be done in order to achieve it. And here, racing and animal welfare organisations are as far apart as they have ever been.