Why Grand National is at crossroads -- or even Canal Turn

NEPTUNE COLLONGES on his way to landing last year's Grand National, becoming the first grey to win the race since 1961.NEPTUNE COLLONGES on his way to landing last year's Grand National, becoming the first grey to win the race since 1961.
NEPTUNE COLLONGES on his way to landing last year's Grand National, becoming the first grey to win the race since 1961.
STAND by for the most famous horse-race in the world, the Grand National, this coming Saturday. But as our resident racing expert and tipster RICHARD SILVERWOOD explains, this year’s renewal is under the spotlight for more than one reason.

IT is ten to five on Saturday April 14, 2012. I am in the County Stand bar at Aintree and I have rarely felt so depressed on a racecourse.

It’’s galling enough that my main bet in the Grand National, SUNNYHILLBOY, has just got chinned on the line, despite a sublime ride by Richie McLernon.

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But then the tragic news comes filtering through that two horses have been killed during the race. And one of them, incredulously, is the Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, SYNCHRONISED.

I couldn’t summon the enthusiasm to stay behind for the final two races of the day. I rushed back into Liverpool to catch an earlier train home.

My overwhelming thought was: how could the National survive after claiming the life of a horse hailed as a hero only 29 days earlier? And my fears were reinforced by a bombardment of criticism of the race on my Twitter timeline.

Some of the messages were erroneous, like the one from BBC TV sports correspondent James Pearce, who claimed that spectators cheered when it was announced on course that Synchronised had fallen at Becher’s Brook. Pearce should know better.

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Some of the messages were downright ridiculous, like the one suggesting the National should be converted into a Flat race, without fences.

But nearly all were unanimous in their condemnation of the National as a race that fostered animal-cruelty under the guise of enjoyment.

Like most racing enthusiasts, when backed into a corner like this, I tried to defend my sport. But then my mind was cast back to 12 months earlier when two other horses lost their lives and I cringed at the sight of jockey Jason Maguire’s punishing over-use of the whip on the winner, BALLABRIGGS, plus other horses needing treatment for dehydration after a 4m4f slog under red-hot sunshine.

To racing’s credit, new rules restricting the use of the whip have since been introduced. And to Maguire’s credit, he has since refined his riding style.

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But then still fresh in my mind is the 2009 National when the crowd was stunned into shellshocked silence by the sight of HEAR THE ECHO lying prostrate on the hallowed Aintree turf, within yards of the winning post, dying and then dead, having collapsed, exhausted after giving everything in the name of our entertainment.

What had this race become, I asked myself. This great race that first fired my love for horse racing way back in the late 1960s when the very first horse I backed, HIGHLAND WEDDING, romped to victory.

Had it changed? Had I changed? Had society changed?

The answer is probably a combination of the three. We live in an age where the welfare of the horse is paramount in racing. So it was little wonder that the RSPCA and the more extreme animal-rights campaigners had a field day after last year’s race.

However, once the raw emotions had retreated into the safe environs of reality, it also became clear to me that the Grand National could not possibly continue as a cherished national institution without serious reform. The general public of the 21st century would no longer condone accidents that lead to fatalities in the name of sport, and predominantly, betting.

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The upshot was the well-documented announcement by the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) of a package of modfications aimed at reducing the perils associated with the race.

Now, as the days tick by to the latest renewal of the Aintree contest, racing waits with bated breath. Excitement has been replaced by nervous trepidation. Can the Grand National recapture its former glories, we ask. Or is it on a slippery slope towards anachronism? Should we start to concentrate more on the meeting itself, which provides superb racing, rather than placing most of the focus on the National?

The BHA modifications concern the start, the fences and the ground at Aintree.

The start has been moved 90 yards further down the course away from the cauldron created by the excited crowd. The theory is that horses and jockeys will remain calm, thus reducing the hectic speed at which they hurtle towards the first few fences and, ergo, the risk of falls.

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The fences have been built differently. No longer does their core consist of padded wooden stakes hammered into the ground. Instead they now comprise more forgiving plastic birch.

The ground, meanwhile, must now be good to soft and no faster, even if gallons of water are required to artificially soak it. The theory goes that the softer the ground, the slower horses will travel, again cutting the risk of falls.

Whether the modifications work, only time will tell. If they don’t, it’s the bet of the century that more changes will follow, such as the felling of drop fences, like Becher’s, and the reduction of the field size from 40 to 30.

Neither measure should be baulked at, in my view. Fences are meant to be a test of a horse’s jumping ability. Drop fences are designed as traps to catch horses out. Large fields lead to congestion. And congestion increases the likelihood of accidents, particularly when horses are travelling at speed over formidable obstacles.

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Of course, there are many within racing whose attitude is: stuff the critics. They insist we should defend the unique character and tradition of the National at all costs and tell the RSPCA to keep their noses out.

But let’s consider the ramifications of such stubbornness. The threat of more fatalities. Which could lead to litigation or even legislation. Which could accelerate the dwindling support of the public. Which could lead to a fall in attendances. Which could lead to the loss of interest from broadcasters and the media. Which could lead to the disappearance of the corporate market. Which could lead to the loss of sponsors. Which equals no Grand National at all.

Making continued changes, viewed by some as pandering to the critics, might result in a radical restructure of the profile of the Aintree spectacular. But it is surely the most palatable of the two options.

The sport is in the middle of an intensive campaign to attract more support, to engage with a wider audience. By and large, thanks to the Racing For Change initiative, led by the admirable Rod Street, it is a campaign that is succeeding. However, there is a danger that the National becomes a millstone round its neck.

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To many, many people, racing IS the Grand National. It is the only time of the year when they connect with the sport. So the sport simply cannot afford the race’s reputation to be sullied beyond repair.

The Grand National can survive. But only with the general public on its side. The race’s future has reached a crossroads. The equivalent of the Canal Turn.