Scepticism over changes to Grand National course

August 17, 2011

Changes are to be made to the Grand National course at Aintree to reduce the risk to horses and riders.

However, Animal Aid has labelled the changes ineffectual, and said in a statement: "Based on what we have seen, the race will remain as lethal as ever."

In last April's Grand National, just 19 horses in the 40-strong field completed the gruelling course.

Dooneys Gate and Ornais suffered fatal injuries during the race, prompting Animal Aid to liken the race to Spanish bullfighting.

Aintree Racecourse and the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) this week announced the interim findings of their review into the 2011 John Smith's Grand National meeting.

The findings of the Grand National Review Group relate specifically to the Grand National course and its fences, which it said would be "subject to a balanced package of modifications with the aim of enhancing safety for competitors".

The changes follow expert analysis of all races run on the Grand National course since 1990, when the course was significantly remodelled.

The British RSPCA and World Horse Welfare were consulted, and the review group received input from leading trainers and jockeys.

The modifications will be in place before the next race on the Grand National course, the Becher Chase on Saturday, December 3.

Aintree Racecourse managing director Julian Thick said the safety and welfare of horses and riders was the top priority at the course.

"This is the latest stage in our continuous drive to make the Grand National Course as safe as possible.

"The Grand National," he said, "is an unparalleled challenge over four miles and four furlongs and this unique event is the most famous race in the world.

"It is not possible to completely eliminate risk in horse racing. However, I am confident the course changes we are announcing today will, over time, have a positive impact.


© TB Murray
"We will continue to monitor this carefully and make further improvements and modifications to the course if required as part of our ongoing commitment to safety."

Animal Aid noted that nine horses have been killed racing in the Aintree Grand National during the last decade.

It said the racing regulator was therefore expected to come up with significant course improvements, but it described them as nothing more than ineffectual tinkering.

"Aintree, the British Horseracing Authority and racing in general see the enormous amount of negative publicity associated with the two equine fatalities at this year's event as a public relations disaster and these measures are fashioned with a view to quelling public disquiet rather than saving horses' lives, Animal Aid's horse-racing consultant Dene Stansall said.

"Animal Aid's detailed analysis of the Grand National over the years and the severe problems it continues to present, despite endless changes, leads us to the firm conclusion that the Grand National is an un-reformable, anachronistic and immoral spectacle that should never be run again."

The group said the race was run over four-and-a-half miles, with the crowded field of 40 horses called upon to jump 30 challenging fences.

"A new analysis of the history of the race published by Animal Aid reveals that, in recent years, the risk of a horse dying in the race has increased rather than diminished, despite much heralded 'improvements'," the group said.

It said the measures "fall depressingly short of any genuine attempt to address the carnage that is a regular feature of the Grand National - a race that routinely sees fewer than half the runners finish and, on average, one death every year."

However, Jamie Stier, director of raceday operations and regulation for the BHA, described the course changes as sensible and balanced.

He said it was a strong package of track changes that will enhance rider and equine welfare.

The BHA launched a wider review of all aspects of the 2011 John Smith's Grand National in April 2011, which is ongoing. It aims to explore all available options to reduce manageable risk to horses and riders in the race. The results will be published in October.

During a calendar year, five races take place over the Grand National course over varying race distances. These are the John Smith's Fox Hunters' Steeplechase (2m 5½f), the John Smith's Topham Chase (2m 5½f) and the John Smith's Grand National (4m 4f) at the Grand National meeting plus the Grand Sefton Chase (2m 5f) and the Becher Chase (3m 2f) in autumn.