Changes to Grand National to improve safety announced

 

Aintree and the British Horseracing Authority have announced a number of changes that will be implemented for the 2013 John Smith's Grand National.

One of the key measures is moving the position of the start for the world's most famous steeplechase forward 90 yards, away from the crowds and grandstands, among other changes to the starting procedure.

This means the distance of the race will now be around four miles and three and a half furlongs, reduced from the previous distance of four and a half miles.

Other changes to the start include the 'no-go' zone, which is defined by a line on the track, being extended from 15 yards to around 30 yards from the starting tape.

The starter's rostrum has been moved to a position between the starting tape and the 'no-go' zone to reduce the potential for horses to go through the starting tape prematurely.

The tapes themselves will also be more user-friendly, with increased visibility, while there will be a specific briefing between the starters' team and the jockeys on Grand National day.

The BHA also revealed there will a concerted drive to improve the starts in other races during the National Hunt season and additional measures will be put in place to minimise the possibility of a riderless horse travelling an extended distance before being caught prior to the National start.

Jamie Stier, Director of Raceday Operations and Regulation for the BHA, said: "Aintree and the BHA's approach has been to reference the findings of the comprehensive 2011 Review, while taking account of any additional data and evidence collated from this year's race.

"This includes the BHA's thorough report into specific incidents in the 2012 running published in May.

"Following this year's race, our priorities were to establish the facts surrounding the incidents that occurred during the running of the race and, secondly, to review the events which led to what was an unsatisfactory start to the race.

"We have worked closely with Aintree and consulted widely with jockeys, trainers and legitimate welfare organisations - the RSPCA and World Horse Welfare - on a range of elements related to the race.

"Our objective in recommending changes to the start is to identify ways in which we can create a calmer and more controlled environment for both horse and rider. We recognise that there is pressure and tension before the race and we want to alleviate that where possible.

"It is possible that a more controlled environment at the start, along with reducing the distance between the start and the first fence, could have the effect of reducing the early speed of the race. If this were to be the case, it would be an added benefit."

Aintree and the BHA will embark on a three-year research and development programme looking at alternative fence designs on the National course.

The 'core' of the fences are currently made up of timber and protective rubber padding, but it is planned that a small number of fences be trialled with a difference core at the Becher Chase meeting in December.

The fence heights will, however, remain unchanged.

Becher's Brook has undergone further levelling of the wider landing zone - "correcting the settlement which occurred following works carried out in 2011" - but the dimensions and character of the fence will remain the same.

Work has also been done on the landing areas of fences four, five and 13.

The field size is to remain at 40 runners, while £100,000 has been invested to help further improve the course's watering capabilities.

An additional catching pen will be trialled in the region of fence four to assist in the catching of riderless horses and mitigate the risk of injury if running loose.

John Baker, who runs Aintree as part of his role as North West Regional Director for Jockey Club Racecourses, said: "Balancing the Grand National's enduring appeal whilst working to reduce risk in the race is a delicate but important balance to strike.

"In recent years, we have made significant investments in safety and believe today's announcement demonstrates we will continue to do so whilst preserving the unique character and appeal of the nation's favourite race.

"With regard to the modifications and improvements made to the course, all the measures have been carefully considered and are evidence based, in line with Aintree's on-going commitment to safety and welfare. We will continue to repeat this process on an annual basis and monitor the many variables involved.

"Further to the extensive 2011 Review, our policy remains one of making changes based on evidence and practical experience. It is vital we don't create other unintended consequences as a result of change, which is why the steps being taken this year continue to be measured.

"These latest changes reinforce the fact that we have never stood still when it comes to safety and welfare. However, 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 to ensure the Grand National remains the world's greatest steeplechase."

A review of this year's National published by the BHA in May found the circumstances which led to the deaths of Synchronised and According To Pete could have been neither "foreseen nor prevented".

Following a review into the 2011 National, the BHA agreed to maintain the safety factor at 40 runners and after considering the 2012 running, it was found there was no additional evidence to suggest the course was unable to accommodate 40 runners. However, the BHA and Aintree said this will continue to be monitored.

World Horse Welfare issued a statement saying it largely welcomed the changes, but urged a reduction of the number of horses in the race and expressed disappointment at no plans to trial a reduced field.

WHW chief executive Roly Owers said: "We welcome Aintree's demonstrated commitment to making the course safer and the changes proposed today which make good sense.

"We are especially encouraged by their programme of work on the fences, replacing the hard cores with softer materials to make them more forgiving to the horses. This has the potential to make a big difference to safety.

"However, we are disappointed that they have not proposed reducing the size of the field, although we note that they are keeping this under review.

"We believe that the number of fallers, unseated riders and horses being brought down by other horses in the National is too high.

"While there is clearly no magic formula here, changes need to be made to significantly reduce the faller rate which will reduce the number of injuries, fatalities and loose horses which pose risks to themselves and others on the course.

"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.

"In previous years the field size has shrunk to around 30 and there were no complaints that the race was any less compelling.

"A reserve system could operate where, if horses dropped out on the eve of the race, others could take their place, ensuring the field size is large enough on the day.

"We will never eliminate risk in any sport, but it is the duty of the sport to do all they can to try to reduce it.

"The public accepts there are risks in racing, but that does not mean we need to accept fatalities and chalk them up to bad luck.

"When we involve horses in sport - and especially in a challenging race like the National - people have a responsibility to learn from accidents of the past and make changes to try to prevent them from happening again.

"Our constructive discussions with the BHA and Aintree have shown that they understand this responsibility, and Aintree have been proactive in seeking to reduce risk in other aspects of the race.

"Moving the start to a quieter location, levelling off the undulations on the course landings and improvements to catching loose horses are all very sensible improvements."

PA

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