National plan to push the numbers up

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The Independent Online
Racing

JOHN COBB

For those that did not manage to find the Grand National winner, the bad news is that it is likely to be even harder next year. With only 27 runners going to post and a handicap snip becoming the first favourite to win the race for 14 years, Saturday's race presented the best chance for some time for form students to see their calculations work out. Now, the British Horseracing Board and Aintree racecourse, concerned that the race attracted the smallest field for 36 years, are to discuss changes to revamp the race in order to make it more competitive.

Of the 27 horses that took part, only nine carried their correct handicap weight, with the rest shouldering 10st even though their abilities justified a less demanding impost.

Possible changes include ensuring that the top weight carries 12st, rather than the 11st 7lb that Young Hustler humped round this year, and altering the rule which bars entries officially rated lower than 120 when the weights are published in early-February.

That rating qualification denied a run in this year's race to eight horses, including the subsequent Eider Chase winner, Killeshin.

The idea behind keeping lowly rated horses out of the race is to ensure that the sort of moderate horse that disfigured some previous runnings of the race and that were a danger to themselves and other competitors, are excluded. That argument seems rather more important than ensuring that the race is a lively medium for bookmakers and punters.

Aintree's clerk of the course, Charles Barnett, defended the rating qualification. "The idea of the ratings was to avoid no-hopers running in the race because they would probably be the sort of horses that wouldn't be suited to the course. I would rather have 27 good horses than 40 no-hopers in the race."

Bookmakers William Hill are also looking for changes at Aintree after reporting betting-shop turnover on Grand National day was down by 2%, despite the recent 1% cut in betting duty.

"We believe that part of the reason for the downturn is the continuing influence of the National Lottery," the firm's Ian Spearing said. "While the smaller field, the earlier start of the National and the fact that the BBC screened only three races this year were other contributory factors.

"It was noticeable that potentially one of the best betting races of the day, the Cordon Bleu Handicap Hurdle, was relegated to the dead end of the meeting instead of receiving prime-time coverage."

The same firm have tried to claw back some of the money they had hoped to see at Aintree by opening betting on Monday's Irish Grand National.

Son Of War and Wylde Hide, who made ignominious departures at Aintree, are 8-1 and 10-1 chances respectively to gain compensation at Fairyhouse, but the favourite, at 3-1, is the Charlie Brooks-trained Suny Bay, who had been extremely impressive at Newbury the previous week. He, along with other British-trained acceptors in Full Of Oats and Tartan Tyrant, will take part only if they are granted a soft surface. Final declarations for the race, which is to be shown live on Channel 4, are to be made on Friday.

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