Aintree's danger reduced but the challenge remains


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The Independent Online

Happily, the first ventures over the world's most scrutinised steeplechase obstacles since the Grand National back in April produced only the sort of summation of which Claud Cockburn would have approved: two races run at Aintree, not many fallers, none dead.

Not that either yesterday's three and a quarter mile Becher Chase or the shorter Grand Sefton Chase was without incident; risk cannot be removed from jump racing. But after two horses lost their lives in this year's National, public sensibilities demanded some sort of reaction from the sport's authorities and over the summer several of the course's signature fences underwent modifications.

There was some mischievous irony in the fact that the first three horses to come down did so at two that had supposedly been made easier in the wake of the fatalities they caused. The first to go was Merchent Paddy, at an obstacle that is now two inches lower, followed by Shalimar Fromentro and Abbeybraney at Becher's, which has lost some of its famous drop landing.

There was relief, not only that the afternoon passed without adverse drama, but also that the track's unique challenge remains. "You could definitely tell the fence that will be the first in the Grand National had been levelled out a bit," said Wayne Hutchinson, victorious on West End Rocker, "but there is still a drop over Becher's. And racing over those fences is what it's all about."

The greater test yesterday proved to be the heavy ground, with a third of the runners in the two contests over the National fences pulled up. West End Rocker revelled in the conditions, winning the Becher Chase by 22 lengths, making some amends for his being brought down at the eponymous hazard in April. "He thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed it," added Hutchinson. "He finds his rhythm and loves this sort of galloping track." The nine-year-old is now as short as 12-1 for next year's National.

The Grand Sefton Chase, with its start delayed until cloud covered the low, slanting winter sun, was closer, with Stewarts House clinging on to foil the gamble of the day on Irish raider Linnel. The Arthur Moore-trained six-year-old, with Paul Carberry in the saddle, might have landed the plunge – he was backed to 7-2 favourite from more than twice the price in the morning – but for ploughing through the last.

His supporters might have had reason to feel aggrieved; the winning jockey Aidan Coleman was afterwards banned for seven days for using his whip 11 times, three over the eight allowed. Moore might, too, as Stewarts House was resident in his Co Kildare Stables until his transfer, via an auction sale for only £11,000, to Tim Vaughan in May. "I said he'd have a big day one day," said Vaughan. "And over these fences is extra special."

The obstacles at Sandown present their own challenges, particularly the closely-spaced back-straight trio known as the Railway Fences for their proximity to the main line from London. In yesterday's Grade 1 feature, the Tingle Creek Chase, the reigning two-mile champion Sizing Europe produced an express display as he flawlessly flew all three under Andrew Lynch.

On his previous outing, the Irish nine-year-old, trained by Henry de Bromhead, had been undone by a grittier stayer over further, but returned to the minimum distance he effortlessly stamped his sheer class on yesterday's opposition, headed at a respectful eight lengths adrift by Kauto Star's young half-brother Kauto Stone.