Grand National faces biggest test with fatalities putting jump racing under the microscope
21:04 GMT, 3 April 2013
21:04 GMT, 3 April 2013
Four Grade One races of rare quality grace today’s opening day of Aintree’s Grand National meeting while tomorrow the clash between steeplechase superstar Sprinter Sacre, Cue Card and Flemenstar is being billed as the race of the season.
But which horses pass the winning line first over the next three days won’t matter a jot if Saturday’s big race turns into another visceral examination of jump racing.
Twelve months ago, when two horses were killed for a second year running, including Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Synchronised, the joy was squeezed out of the victory of Neptune Collonges.
Scroll down for Peter Scudamore's inside track on Aintree's new fences
Preparations: Aintree ground staff were tending to the new safer fences ahead of the three-day meeting
The deaths of Synchronised and According To Pete raised questions as to whether the race could even survive in its present form.
RSPCA chief executive Gavin Grant called the deaths ‘totally unacceptable’ while branding the famous Becher’s Brook, where According To Pete was brought down before being hit by another horse, a ‘killer fence’. A nervous calm precedes this year’s race but a major modification to the fences’ construction has been welcomed (see graphic above).
Spokesmen for the RSPCA and World Horse Welfare deny the race is on trial but another body blow would be serious given a sponsor is being sought with John Smiths leaving after Saturday’s race.
Finishing touch: The grass on the Grand National finish line was cut this week before the Aintree showpiece
WHW chief executive Roly Owers said: ‘There is still huge support for the race but there also are increasing voices within racing questioning whether the National is doing the sport any good. The warning bells have sounded and Aintree have recognised that.
‘Our biggest issue with the National is the number of fallers. It is five times higher than a normal steeplechase. The fewer fallers, the less chance of injury. The changes to the fence core are a real step forward and we also welcome the improvements in irrigation.
‘We recognise you can’t eliminate risk. The responsibility is to minimise it.’
WHW have repeated a call to reduce the number of starters.Owers said: ‘We believe there should be a trial reduction of three years. We recognise it has to be a great test but you can’t just accept the regular death of horses.’
Scrutiny: Last year's Grand National (above) saw the fatalities of According to Pete and Synchronised
RSPCA equine consultant David Muir added: ‘With 40 runners, you have 40 chances of things going wrong. I’d like to see them reduce it to 30 but we don’t run racing.’
Jockeys have been asked to moderate their speed to the first fence and the run-up to it has been shortened by 90 yards by moving the start further away from the unsettling cauldron of noise coming from of the grandstands.
Jamie Stier, BHA director of raceday operations, said: ‘The changes are all designed for horse welfare but at the same time we have maintained the shape, size and character of the fences.
‘People have to understand the position of the race within the fabric of society. Attendance figures last year were 155,000 at the meeting and more people watch the Grand National on TV than the FA Cup final — more than 11million — with a global audience of 600m in 140 countries.
‘We don’t feel it is on trial. It is down to the BHA and Aintree to find a way forward.’
Still, a lot of people will be holding their breath on Saturday.
Peter Scudamore looks at the major fences at this year's Grand…
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