Racing: Aintree prepares for a fresh start: Aintree today stages its first meeting since the fiasco in which April's Grand National ended before it had begun. Procedures have been overhauled, but can they be foolproof? Greg Wood finds out

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The Independent Online
AT 12.30 this afternoon, Simon Morant, the Jockey Club's senior starter, will attempt to dispatch a field around the Grand National course at Aintree for the first time since his predecessor's humiliating failure to do so on 3 April. Should he meet the slightest difficulty, an already sceptical nation will laugh itself hoarse.

The abandonment of the 1993 National was a thoroughly British disaster, from its bemused, bowler-hatted ex- Army officer right down to the tubby man with the flag. The Jockey Club, its credibility in tatters, reacted in a thoroughly British manner: it formed a committee to discover what went wrong.

The answer was: 'what didn't?'. The starting system, in which a tape stretched in front of the runners moved upwards as the starter pulled a lever, could not operate efficiently given the large span which the National's 40-runner field required. This inherent flaw was exaggerated by heavy rain, which soaked the cotton tape and caused it to sag, while the starter allowed the field to line up too close to the tape. An animal-rights demonstration delayed the off and the tension grew. Twice, the tape snagged on agitated riders looking for a flyer.

Next, the recall system, essentially a man waving a flag to alert jockeys when a false start is declared, proved wholly inadequate. After the second false start, many runners continued down the course, and a void race was inevitable.

Another committee, chaired by Andrew Parker Bowles, was asked to ensure that the fiasco could never be repeated. It is changes made at its recommendation on which Morant will rely as his (perhaps slightly sweaty) finger reaches for the button today.

Not that many casual observers will notice much difference; it is the practice, not the theory, which has changed. 'We have a new, specially designed gate,' Charles Barnett, Aintree's clerk of the course, said earlier this week. 'It's a similar principle to the gate we used to use, but the spring mechanism is substantially stronger and faster and the whole thing looks much more modern.'

The only new addition at the start is a pair of poles on opposite sides of the course, about five metres behind the tape, behind which the field must now line up (this system has been operating on all National Hunt courses since the start of the month). When the starter is satisfied that all is ready, he will ask the runners to walk slowly forward, and release the tape before there is any danger of a snag.

Down the course there will be two recall men, not one, both in contact with the starter via a walkie-talkie. From 1 January 1994 they will be Jockey Club employees with a month's training behind them (Ken Evans, the National flagman, was engaged by Aintree for pounds 28 a day). A third will wait in a car in the middle of the course, ready to organise a last- ditch response if all else fails.

But as David Pipe, the Jockey Club's director of communications, said this week: 'I hope to God it doesn't get to that, because if it gets that far, something's gone sadly wrong.'

Could it get that far? Barnett is confident it could not, even when the National's weight of numbers provides the system's ultimate test. 'If it works satisfactorily on Saturday it will be fine, because all you're dealing with is additional horses. In fact, of course, the old gate did work satisfactorily, the horses were just too close to it. It doesn't really matter if you've got three horses or 40. The principal is just the same.'

But at Chepstow two weeks ago, a field of 20 lined up for a competitive handicap hurdle, jostling for a good position as they do before the National. The starter - Simon Morant, by coincidence - called them in from behind the poles, but then noticed a straggler and did not let them go. The tape broke, two jockeys were unseated, for a moment chaos reigned - and suddenly the new procedure did not seem so reliable.

''This pressure comes during high-value races, of that there is no doubt,' Pipe said. 'The jockeys must understand that they've got to produce an orderly start, and can't all rush up and try to grab the inside. I think the jockeys will behave accordingly. If they don't then it's up to the starter to impose his authority and if neccessary to report them to the stewards, who will fine them.'

Fines and suspensions, though, do not deter jockeys from liberal use of the whip at the other end of big races. Nor does it seem wise to place so much emphasis on the jockeys, when they will clearly not be the calmest participants.

As for the recall system, Pipe says, 'We could have had 50 false starts providing on the 51st time it had worked and on all the 50 previous occasions the recall system had worked.' Would the provision of two extra men and walkie-talkies really have been enough, 50 times in a row?

The Grand National will surely start without problem next year, and the year after that. But it may be that there will always be an element of risk in starting an ultra-competitive, 40-runner steeplechase, and last year's protagonists were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Only one of them may have a chance to seek absolution. Captain Keith Brown, the starter, has retired, as has John White, the 'winning' jockey. While Ken Evans, the recall flagman, still works at Aintree, he will not be involved in the start.

But in Lambourn, Esha Ness, the most blameless and oblivious victim of the National that wasn't, is being trained for Aintree once more. He, at least, deserves a second chance.

(Graphic omitted)

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