Racing: New rules to cut National deaths

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The Independent Online
THERE WILL probably never be another Grand National as murderous as the disturbing spectacle we witnessed on 4 April this year.

On that day, just six of the 37 horses which embarked over the marshy terrain came back through the rains to the sanctuary of the finishing line.

Earth Summit suggested that both his skeleton and resolve were made of steel as he ploughed home in a time over two minutes slower than Mr Frisk had accomplished in victory eight years earlier. But for three horses there was no return. Griffins Bar, Pashto and Do Rightly perished on that bleak Merseyside afternoon.

It was the sort of toll that made the Aintree executive grimace almost as much as those that are opposed to the National being run at all. It is a toll that the organisers hope never to see again.

In the wake of a Grand National report several measures were announced yesterday in an effort to make the old race a little safer for its participants. It was a fact that none of this year's fatalities could be described as the fastest horse in the world and from here on the ability of all entrants will be screened.

A panel of experts is to report to the Jockey Club if they consider a horse is not suitable to run, regardless of other criteria being filled. In addition, all horses will undergo a pre-race veterinary inspection.

Poor Griffins Bar fell twice at the meeting this year: at the second fence in the John Hughes Trophy on the Thursday and, fatally, at the fifth in the big one. The John Hughes now swaps places with the Foxhunters and will be run on the Friday, but even so there will never be another Griffins Bar. Any horse that runs after the five-day declaration stage is automatically withdrawn from the National.

Another worrying postscript to this year's race was the criticism of the state of the course by a great champion of the National, Jenny Pitman. She complained that the Liverpool turf was repaired improperly and too late after the Friday card. In response, Aintree will next year ensure the ground is in perfect condition by first light on National morning, 10 April.

By then, many of the runners may be at least partially aware of the task ahead as schooling fences of National design (but not full dimensions) are to be made available at Middleham, Lambourn and Newmarket.

Over pounds 1m in prize-money will be available over the three days of next year's meeting. The National itself will carry a minimum value of pounds 420,000, over pounds 180,000 of which will go to the winning owner.

Earth Summit begins his programme for the season at Liverpool on Saturday and may well meet the Irish National winner, Bobbyjo, in the Becher Chase over the National fences.

The 10-year-old was paraded before the nation's press yesterday at the Grange Hill Stables of Nigel Twiston-Davies as Martell shot the starting gun on their promotion for Liverpool 1999.

The trainer believes his gelding could become a race specialist, like Red Rum, as long as he does not harbour too many bad memories from earlier this year. "He could be an Aintree specialist because of the extreme distance," Twiston-Davies said. "There are no other four-and-a-half-mile races.

"My only worry is that he is very cute and a slight reservation is that the fences might frighten him this time. In the old days he was getting beaten round Perth and places in bad novice chases, before we put the blinkers on, because he was getting frightened. Blinkers made a man of him, but it may not last for ever, and it will be interesting to see when he goes back to Aintree again.

"The fences are that much bigger than anywhere else and if he didn't enjoy the experience he might not try so hard the next time. Having said that, it looked like the more he jumped the better he got when he won."

Earth Summit is to be reunited with Tom Jenks, whose absence let in Carl Llewellyn earlier this year. He represents a training partnership of Twiston- Davies and the retired champion jockey, Peter Scudamore. "I'm the Roy Evans to his Gerard Houllier," Scu said yesterday. "It's not done by committee, and anyone who knows Nigel will find that easy to believe. He's in charge."

Scudamore acknowledges however that even his childhood chum has been eclipsed in importance at the yard by a horse who hardly sparkles on the gallops.

"Earth Summit is slow," he says. "But you know what they say: fast horses and fast women do you no good.

"This horse loves the attention and people coming to see him. By that I mean he likes the Polos and apples everybody brings him. But he's not human, and if he comes over now he'll play around with you until he finds out you haven't got anything for him and then move on." Which proves that the horse does indeed have some human characteristics after all.

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