For better, for worse, each new running of the world's most famous steeplechase adds to the emotion which always surrounds the race. It is just as well, then, that those charged with preserving the status of the John Smith's Grand National should be at such pains to resist knee-jerk solutions to its latest crisis.
If anything, the British Horseracing Authority press release that yesterday detailed the latest series of tweaks to the race was nearly gauche in its anxiety to stress circumspection: "BHA and Aintree announce considered modifications to the Grand National."
They come in response to the macabre events last year, when two horses died in appalling falls, and a dispiriting sequel last April when two more runners suffered fatal injuries. Freakish as it seemed, an inquiry into the circumstances of each accident in this year's race recently concluded that neither could be attributed directly to a fall: Synchronised was injured while running loose, while According To Pete was brought down by another runner.
The latter case did prompt calls to reduce the safety limit of 40 runners, but the alterations announced instead focused on the start. Synchronised had delayed proceedings when unseating his rider on his way to post, and there then followed two false starts. The BHA rebuked all 40 riders, without charging any.
It has long been felt that the run to the first obstacle is too much of a stampede, with riders goaded by a charged atmosphere in the adjacent stands. Following consultation with jockeys, and animal welfare organisations, next year's race will be abbreviated by 90 yards. The start will be moved away from the enclosures, and the buffer zone before the tape will be doubled to 30 yards. The starting apparatus still retained a rather antediluvian aspect last year, and a brighter tape will be deployed in future. Jamie Stier, BHA director of raceday operations, said that the objective was to "create a calmer and more controlled environment for both horse and rider".
An additional catching pen will be erected to corral loose horses. No change is being made to the fence dimensions, but research is under way into softening the "core" material, at present comprising timber and rubber. Roly Owers, the chief executive of World Horse Welfare, identified this as an especially welcome development, but was disappointed by the resistance to a reduced field.
"While there is clearly no magic formula, changes need to be made to reduce the faller rate," he said. "We believe the single most effective way of doing this is to trial a reduction in the field size, say for three years. We do not believe that this would alter the spectacle or character of the race." But he praised the BHA and Aintree for continuing to acknowledge their responsibility to equine welfare.
John Baker, regional director of Aintree, stressed the need to strike a balance between the National's enduring appeal and the reduction of its inherent risks. "Our policy remains one of making changes based on evidence and practical experience," Baker said. "It is vital we don't create other, unintended consequences, which is why the steps taken continue to be measured. We are fully aware in racing that you cannot remove risk altogether. What we can do is continue to act, and learn from modifications we've made."
However, the moves did not placate the race's opponents. "Yet again, the BHA has reluctantly offered up a meagre list of modifications that fail even to acknowledge the lethal nature of this race," said a spokesman for Animal Aid. "They amount to little more than a cynical whitewash."
Chris McGrath's Nap
Arabic (9.00 Wolverhampton) Responded well to cheekpieces on his second run after a break at Kempton last time, and can take another step forward restored to this longer trip.
Zain Spirit (5.30 Wolverhampton) Renewed the promise of his first two starts in his first handicap last time, finishing on the heels of the protagonists and ready for this extra furlong.
Where the money's going
Dvinsky is 10-1 with William Hill to win on his record-breaking 218th career start at Wolverhampton tonight, and 5-2 for a place.