Racing / The Grand National: Tape quality brings sound improvement to old track: Greg Wood on the measures taken to ensure a fresh start

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THE differences will take some spotting, but by the time the Grand National runners form a line at 3.50 today, countless hours and thousands of pounds will have been spent ensuring that last year's debacle cannot be repeated.

The chaos 12 months ago was due to a combination of factors. The starting system, in which a tape stretched in front of the runners should have moved upwards as the starter pulled a lever, could not operate efficiently given the large span which the National field required. This inherent flaw was exaggerated by heavy rain, which soaked the cotton tape and caused it to sag, while the starter also allowed the field to line up too close to the tape.

An animal-rights demonstration delayed the start and tension rose. Twice the tape snagged as excited riders tried to get a flyer. On the second occasion, the recall system, essentially a man waving a flag, proved inadequate and many runners continued down the course, making a void race inevitable.

The differences today will be in the practice, rather than the theory. The runners will still line up behind a tape stretched across the course, but its span has been reduced from 66 yards to 41, while the gate has been moved up the course to allow a straight run to the first fence. The tape will move away from the runners at an angle rather than straight up, and five times faster than previously. The starter will release it by pressing a button, out of the jockeys' sight, rather than pulling a very obvious lever. This should prevent riders attempting to anticipate the start.

Other additions are a loudspeaker system to broadcast the starter's orders, and two extra recall men. They will be on either side of the course at the Melling Road, half-way down the run to the first fence, while another will be positioned at the fence itself. All three will be in radio contact with the starter, rather than relying on a flag signal to indicate a false start as before.

Perhaps the only unquantifiable element is the appearance and strength of any demonstration by animal-rights protesters. Aintree is a huge course, and short of barbed wire and border guards, almost impossible to secure completely. A Levy Board grant of pounds 100,000 has been used to re-inforce security, but a demonstration of some sort is likely. Though the objectors' actions were not wholly responsible for last year's problems, the fiasco that ensued will only have encouraged them.

The man on the rostrum will be Simon Morant, who became the Jockey Club's senior starter when Captain Keith Brown, vilified as the bowler- hatted representative of bungling officialdom last year, retired in August. Morant's predecessor will be watching from the comfort and peace of his living room, but Ken Evans, the recall flagman who took much of the blame for the false start, will be at Aintree. Though no longer employed to carry a flag, Evans will be assisting in the jockeys' changing room.

No stone has been left unturned, it seems, but one final element will be needed if the National is to take place without incident. As befits the race, the missing link is a little bit of luck.

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