Racing Commentary: Aintree can be proud of falling standards: Though the tradition of extreme endeavour is sacrificed, changes at Liverpool allow the nation's favourite race to ride the tide of concern

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The Independent Online
IT IS a reflection of the progress that has been made that it is possible to look forward to next Saturday's Grand National without the fear that we are likely to end up as spectators to slaughter. It is not the only perpective, though. While some regret that the race has lost its unique character because of the smoothing of its formidably rough edges, there are many more for whom it is still a prime example of man's exploitation of animals. It will remain a cause as long as it is Britain's most famous race, its biggest betting medium, its most watched sporting event.

This is the tide of opinion that brought about the changes to the track at Aintree, that secured the levelling off of the landing side at Becher's, that reduced the brook to a trickle and the less publicised but equally apparent softening of the fences. It is a tide that has certainly not stopped moving and shaping. It has probably only just begun.

Consider the changes at Aintree against some of the other developments of this more enlightened age: in Czechoslovakia last year the first protests against an incomparably more vicious race, the Velka Pardubicka; in the United States a move to disassociate jump racing from its roots in the barbarity of the hunting field by dropping the word 'Hunt' from the title of the sport's governing body, now the National Steeplechase Association; an awakening around the globe that neglecting the rights of animals debases the human race.

So where does this leave Aintree? At the mercy of do-gooders, according to a man with no reason to complain about the old, more testing course, Red Rum's trainer, Ginger McCain. 'The Jockey Club pander to the public. There is a danger that they will destroy the character of the race,' he said this week. 'It was a trial of man and horse against the country. Now it's just a four-and-a-half-mile chase.'

McCain is not a great fan of the work of the RSPCA in racing - 'they'd do a lot better looking for real cruelty at cattle markets or horse fairs, they'll find none at the Grand National' - but could discover he shares more of the concerns of that body than he might imagine.

'They make the fences easier, so the race becomes faster and there are more injuries,' McCain said, and it is just that sort of analysis that the RSPCA hopes to encourage to help pin-point why injuries occur and help prevent them.

'We're now analysing falls by course, by going, by age etc, to be able to see the types of horses that are likely to be injured and the ways they are injured,' Alastair Mews, the organisation's Assistant Chief Veterinary Officer, said.

'I don't want to wrap racing in cotton wool, but to gather much more information rather than rely on hunches. Injuries seem to be on the increase and I'm disappointed that any trainers let their horses run on jarring ground when the top trainers avoid those meetings like the plague.'

Better documentation could result in a register of each trainer's record on injuries. 'Their reputation would be affected,' Mews said. 'It would become apparent who was playing the game properly, and which people needed persuading that they were not doing things the right way.'

These are rational, progressive points to be considered in a week when the National will stir bloody old images that caused some to question whether the race, or even the whole sport, should be swept away by a wave of moral outrage.

That is a tone that has not gone unnoticed by John Upson, the trainer of one of the favourites for the race, Zeta's Lad. 'Racing couldn't go on staging the National in the way that it used to,' he told Timeform this week. 'The public don't like to see horses killed and had changes not been made, sooner or later someone would have tried to get it banned. It's still a great spectacle, a very exciting race and now a fairer one too. '

Joining Upson firmly behind Zeta's Lad and behind racing reform might just leave you with something more to show for National day than a feeling of guilt.

(Photograph omitted)

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