Racing: National inquiry keeps faith in flag-waving: In the aftermath of Aintree, new technology is shunned but traditional methods expanded and improved

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FOUR months after racing's darkest day when the Grand National was abandoned, a working group chaired by Brigadier Andrew Parker Bowles yesterday announced measures to ensure that the 1994 race earns none of the notoriety of its predecessor.

Perhaps the most surprising element of the 34-page report, though, is that the group has chosen to ignore the popular remedy of introducing modern technology to Aintree and the rest of Britain's racecourses.

Considerable public discussion had arisen over the possibility of introducing electronic devices, such as horns or flashing lights, to provide a fail-safe starting and recall system, Parker Bowles said. 'But those overseas turf authorities which have used them reported they were not always successful and were open to sabotage and technical failure.

'Technology in racing may not be the answer. We have had some wonderful machines all spread out for us, but there is no use adopting them just because they are hi-tech, taking on hi-tech just because it's there.'

The recommendations of the working group, which have already been approved by the Jockey Club and are all expected to be in place by next year's National, follow the Connell Report, which looked in to the events of Aintree.

The Connell investigation criticised the starting gate, starter Keith Brown for lining the field up too close to the tape and the role of Ken Evans, the recall man. All of these elements have been addressed.

Next spring, National horses will be called forward to an imaginary line between two red and white candy-stripe posts on either side of the course, five yards from the starting tape. (Experiments were carried out with the more tangible mark of a row of sawdust, but horses tended to jump it).

The tape itself will be a more sturdy contraption, consisting of three strands instead of one, and again in the distinctive barber's pole pattern. And it will be shorter, for from next year the starter's rostrum will be in the middle of the course and horses will line up towards the outside, ensuring both they, and the starter, have a straight view of the first fence.

'The width of the start will be reduced to 40 yards and the starting equipment will be one of two alternatives,' Parker Bowles said. 'The preferred option will be a redesigned Grey Gate, or alternatively a flip start (when the tape pings across in front of the runners) may be considered if elastic can be produced that can be used over that width.'

If a false start does occur, the working group believes it has an improved system to alert jockeys. Two flag men (just one at smaller courses) will keep in touch with the starter by radio and wave fluorescent yellow flags at jockeys should a faulty start be declared.

Further up the course, a third person, a 'stop man', will be positioned to arrest those who fail to notice the flag men. If necessary, he will follow the field in a car to stop them.

This reliance on personnel above state-of-the-art equipment will disturb many, but the working group is satisfied with its findings, not least because it was guided by five men who have ridden in the Grand National.

A rider from the Flat, Richard Fox, explained why flashes and noise were of little use in attracting attention. 'When you jump out of the gate your main concern is just to get a decent place,' he said. 'You're looking at the heels in front of you and it's asking a bit much, even of professional jockeys, to watch out for flashing lights or listen for a klaxon. At somewhere like Sandown, where you're looking into the sun, it would be almost impossible.'

Toby Balding, who trained Romany King to finish third in the void race in April, believes the working group has done as much as possible. 'Last year was an accident waiting to happen, a day when so many things that could go wrong singly all actually happened together.

'I think they have found the solutions for modern equipment wanting because on the track, when the adrenalin is up and they're all ready to go, you have to rely on the human element. You have to tighten that up as best you can, and hopefully they've done that.'

Parker Bowles sees the National of 1993 as a freak occurrence, and one that will not be repeated. 'You start 7,000 races a year with flagmen and it went wrong just three times last year, but one of them was the National,' he said. 'It won't happen again.'

(Photograph omitted)