Aintree set to move National start
A moving forward of the start of the John Smith's Grand National by 90 yards was one of the most significant changes announced by Aintree and the British Horseracing Authority.
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Various amendments to the country's most famous race were made in time for this year's race, but the deaths of According To Pete and the Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Synchronised created further unpleasant headlines for the sport.
With the start now moved further away from the crowds and grandstands, the distance of the race will be around four miles and three and a half furlongs, rather than four and a half miles.
Other changes include the 'no-go' zone being extended from 15 yards to around 30 yards from the starting tape, while the starter's rostrum has been moved to a position between the tape and the 'no-go' zone to reduce the potential for horses to go through the starting tape prematurely.
There will be a specific briefing between the starters' team and the jockeys on the day, part of a concerted BHA effort to improve starts in National Hunt races.
They are also looking at measures to reduce 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: "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.
"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 are to embark on a three-year programme looking at alternative fence designs on the National course.
The so-called 'core' of the fences are currently made up of timber and protective rubber padding, but some will be trialled with a difference core at the 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 fence itself remains 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.
However, the RSPCA, while supportive of many of the changes, voiced several points of worry, and a statement read: "We remain concerned that two significant issues have not been addressed sufficiently by these changes. These are the impact of Becher's Brook and the field size which remains the same.
"While the proposed improvement at Becher's by the additional levelling of the adverse slope on the landing zone can only be beneficial, we believe that the remaining many complexities of this fence mean that it continues to pose a serious and unacceptable threat to horse welfare.
"We will watch carefully the impact of this change at Becher's at the 2013 Grand National. This is the BHA's last chance to show that this fence can pose a fair and safe challenge to horse and jockey.
"Given the number of fallers and failures to complete the course, we do not accept that the field should remain at 40. Clearly many horses compete at the Grand National that cannot complete it.
"We welcome the constructive dialogue that has taken place to date between us and believe that this is the best way to improve the welfare of racehorses.
"The testing nature of the Grand National will always produce a higher level of risk. That risk must be appropriate and the safety of horses paramount.
"Consequently the Grand National and related races will remain high on our agenda.
"We will seek permission for more RSPCA equine officers to be present at Aintree and will pay even closer attention to the conduct of the 2013 Grand National and its welfare outcome."
Replying to this on Racing UK, Stier said: "For the unfortunate circumstances regarding According To Pete and Synchronised this year, there is no evidence to suggest they were in any way related to field size and I think people ought to be reminded that when the unfortunate accident to According To Pete took place there were only 17 horses remaining in the field at that time.
"In regards to Becher's Brook, yes, Synchronised did fall at that time, as have other runners, but it was not Becher's Brook which caused Synchronised's fatal injury.
"And this year, you've got to remember we had in place new changes and I think people ought to understand that on a one-off running we ought to be guarded about taking what has occurred this year as a basis of which to bring about significant change and we'd ask people to allow time for the changes to bed in."
Donald McCain, who has trained a National winner and whose late father Ginger's name was synonymous with the race, said: "I think Aintree have shown they are always trying to find new ways to make the race safer and better.
"They have looked into a couple of things to do with the start and I welcome that, as this year's start wasn't acceptable."
Champion jockey Tony McCoy was unseated from Synchronised on the way to the start in this year's race, with the Gold Cup winner running loose and given a full veterinary examination before taking part.
McCoy told At The Races: "For a number of years there have been concerns about the start of the Grand National and I suppose they are trying to make improvements to make it better.
"Until you do these things, you don't know if it's the right answer or not. I'm not sure and we'll have to wait and see.
"The Grand National is the greatest race in the world. It's why 10 million people watch it and they don't watch every other horse race.
"It's because of the excitement and everything that goes with it and you don't want to get taken away from that fact.
"There'll always be people who've got good things to say about it and not so good things to say about it, but at the end of the day it's different to every other horse race and that's what's special about it.
"What happened to Synchronised wasn't anything to do with what happened at the start of the Grand National. It's unfortunate the way it all unfolded.
"In theory that (the 'no-go area') could work as obviously the closer you get to the tape the more chance you having of breaking it and when 40 horses are galloping at it, it takes a long time to set it up again.
"These things might work or they might not work, but it's about giving it a go."