The most famous obstacle in horse racing is to be altered in response to the tragic and controversial scenes that tarnished the Grand National in April. By raising the landing side at Becher's Brook, Aintree racecourse and the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) hope to reduce the risk to horse and rider without diluting the distinctive character of the historic fence.
Several other changes were announced yesterday after a review into the public relations calamity caused by the death of two horses, whose demise was shockingly apparent to television viewers.
Aintree has won strong approval for its efforts to improve safety in recent years, not just within the racing industry but also from the RSPCA. In four previous runnings, the fences had claimed one horse, but renewed protests became inevitable when two were fatally injured on the first circuit.
Typically, a horse is more likely to fall as it becomes tired, but the disaster that befell Ornais at the fourth fence and Dooneys Gate at the sixth, Becher's, meant that the field was diverted around the obstacles on the second circuit. Aerial shots showed the body of Ornais covered by a tarpaulin, and vets still tending to Dooneys Gate behind screens. A review group concluded that the notorious "drop" fences – with a lower landing side – present an unconscionable trap to horses. The steep drop at Becher's will be reduced by four to five inches, to 10 inches on the inside and six on the outside.
A landing side on the first fence will also be levelled off, while the fourth, identified as particularly hazardous by a statistical analysis of all races since the course was tamed in 1990, will be reduced in height by two inches. Orange "toe boards" will also be raised on all fences to improve horses' view of the ground line.
Julian Thick, managing director of Aintree, said the proposals were expressive of its continuous vigilance. "It is not possible to completely eliminate risk in horse racing," he said. "However, I am confident the course changes we are announcing today will, over time, have a positive impact."
Jamie Stier, for the BHA, described the modifications as "sensible and balanced". He added: "Aintree, our team of course inspectors and our senior veterinary advisor have analysed footage of races and fallers over the course since 2000. We have received valuable feedback from our sport's participants and welfare groups.
"I believe it all makes for a strong package of track changes that will enhance rider and equine welfare."
The changes will be implemented before the next race over the National fences, on 3 December. The RSPCA has been critical of the failure to make public, before the race, agreed precautions against dehydration on an unusually warm April day. As a result, commentators and viewers were startled to see jockeys dismounting after the finish as buckets of water were flung across their horses. The RSPCA felt this created a sense of emergency where none existed, and the BHA intends to provide a new wash-down and cooling zone.
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