Horse Welfare & Safety
Carefully considered modifications have been made to three of the Grand National fences since the 2011 running of the John Smith’s Grand National.
Racing wouldn’t exist without the jockeys and the horses that deliver what we believe to be the best show on earth, and that’s why it’s essential that, as a sporting industry together, we are always looking for ways to protect the stars that are at the centre of our much loved sport.
As one of the biggest events in the racing calendar, Aintree, as well as the sport’s regulator, the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) review all aspects of the Grand National meeting each year, with one unaltered objective: improve safety and welfare year on year.
Following the sad loss of two horses, Dooneys Gate and Ornais, in the 2011 renewal of the Grand National, the 2011 Review Group was widened and together with the BHA, Aintree consulted with leading racehorse trainers through the NTF, leading jockeys through the PJA and veterinary surgeons, in addition to organisations with whom the racecourse already works with, which include the RSPCA, SSPCA and World Horse Welfare.
The ethos of the Review Group was to seek and retain the essence and individuality of the Grand National, balancing this with reviewing areas where any unnecessary risk could be reduced. Hours of DVD coverage was reviewed of fallers in races over the National fences at both the Grand National meeting and the Becher Chase in December.
Jamie Stier, Director of Raceday Operations and Regulation for the BHA, said: “The Group recognised that both the race and the Grand National course have been the subject of much scrutiny and have undergone a number of changes over the years. The Review Group noted how the race has evolved as a result of these changes and how the quality of runners in the race has improved and the public’s interest - as demonstrated by the raceday attendance, domestic and global viewing audiences - has been sustained.
“As part of the Review a wide range of proposals were considered and, in many cases the need for change was not found. These topics included discussions regarding the maximum number of runners in the race, the position of the start and run to the first fence. However, despite a lack of evidence which warranted change, the Group did conclude that there is merit in continuing to collate data and monitor results so that, if necessary, such subjects could be revisited in the future.”
In August 2011, Aintree and the BHA announced interim findings from the Review, which specifically focused on a package of balanced modifications to the course, the most significant since the course’s last major remodelling in 1990. This announcement was timed to ensure all works could be carried out and given time to ‘bed-in’ before racing over the Grand National course for the Becher Chase meeting in December.
The most significant announcement of four modifications to the course and its fences was the announcement that the iconic Becher’s Brook was to be re-profiled of the landing side. The announcement focused on reducing the current drop between 10cm (4in) and 12.5cm (5in) across the width of the fence to provide a more level landing area for horses. The drop is now approximately 25cm (10in) on the inside of the course and 15cm (6in) on the outside of the course (when measured 5 metres from the landing side of the fence). The height of the fence was left unchanged at 4ft 10in.
Other announcements which affected the famous course included levelling the landing side of the first fence on the Grand National course, which has witnessed very few incidents when jumped on the second circuit. The amendment to this fence slightly reduces the current drop but, furthermore, provides a more level landing surface, thereby not catching out horses that may ‘over-jump’ the first fence in the early stages of the race.
Fence four (fence 20 second circuit) was highlighted as being statistically more difficult to jump and for that that reason, the Review Group recommended its height be reduced by 2 inches (5 centimetres) to 4ft 10 inches, the only fence height to be altered.
The fifth and final modification was the standardisation of the height of toe boards on all National fences to be increased to 14 inches (36cm). These orange boards, positioned at the base of a fence provide a clear ground line to assist horses in determining the base of the fence.
Speaking at the time of the review, Julian Thick, Managing Director of Aintree Racecourse, said: “The safety and welfare of horses and riders is always our number one priority at Aintree. This is the latest stage in our continuous drive to make the Grand National Course as safe as possible. The Grand National race 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. 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.”
As an event which has a mass appeal and reaches the once-a-year racegoer, it was essential that Aintree and the BHA’s reaction wasn’t kneejerk and that a thorough and considered review would highlight positive and balanced changes which will ensure the Grand National retains its enduring appeal.
Of the Review, Paul Roy, Chairman of the BHA, welcomed the recommendations and said: “The Grand National is one of Britain’s great sporting institutions. It is a unique event watched by many tens of thousands at Aintree and tens of millions of people around the world.
“A key reason for its enduring popularity is that it is the most challenging race in Great Britain and a supreme sporting test for jockeys and horses alike.
“The Review Group has submitted recommendations that will enhance the safety and welfare of jockeys and horses participating in the Race, whilst removing none of the magic that makes the Grand National one of the most exciting, best-loved and enduring sporting events in the world.”
The BHA has subsequently published its own independent review of the meeting*, titled The Grand National, A Review of Safety and Welfare, in which 30 recommendations were made (including course amends announced at an earlier date) relating to improving the quality of the entries and procedural changes which communicate positive welfare messages to the racing public, while ensuring the race’s unique and challenging character is retained.
The wider review recommended changes to race conditions; notably six-year-olds no longer qualifying to take part as it was recognised that this age group don’t contribute to the race. The minimum age for horses is now seven, while they must also have finished fourth or better in a chase over three miles or more.
The minimum requirement of jockeys to have ridden at least 15 winners before being allowed to ride in the Grand National has been tightened. Now at least 10 of those 15 winners must have been in chases.
Aintree, recognising that warm weather (19 degrees Celsius) on the day of the 2011 John Smith’s Grand National was not ideal for the post-race care of horses, is investing in a new post-race wash down and unsaddling area, which can be covered to block out the sun if there’s a requirement to do so. From this year, there is flexibility within the race conditions to shorten or abandon the parade before the Grand National
if the weather is deemed too warm to assist in keeping horses and jockeys cool before the race.
Bypassing was one of the last significant investments made by Aintree to ensure that if needed, fences could be bypassed to allow veterinary or medical personnel the space and time to diagnose and move their patient in safety. Bypassing also provides a valuable run-out space for loose horses and enables them to miss fences, thereby not causing potential injury whilst loose.
Bypassing over the Grand National course was first used in 2010 in the Becher Chase to avoid an injured jockey on the landing side of a fence. 2011 was the first time bypassing has been used in the Grand National itself and worked effectively. The Review recommended improved directional signage to assist jockeys if there is a requirement to bypass on the course in the future.
Another area of focus in the Review was speed, although the report identified that speed wasn’t a contributing factor to the incidents in the Grand National. Horses taking part in the 2012 John Smith’s Grand National will carry speed-sensing equipment for the first time as part of continuing research into the pace of the race. The equipment was used for the first time by runners in the Becher Chase late last year.
Aintree already sets very high standards in the area of track preparation and has excellent watering systems to ensure the ground raced on is no faster than good. The turf management during the 2011 Review received praise from trainers and jockeys and Aintree will continue to make investments in watering equipment to achieve this minimum standard of ground.
Existing pre-race veterinary inspections of horses running over the Grand National fences will continue, while horses’ suitability to take part over these obstacles widened to take into account chasing experience, staying ability, previous injury and general uncompetitiveness or natural decline in ability.
The Review Group’s other recommendations relate mostly to logistical or communication improvements or the continuance of existing good practice such as watering of the course to achieve a minimum of good going.
Aintree has more than nine vets and at least six doctors on duty on each day of the John Smith’s Grand National meeting, exceeding standard requirements, and the Review Group was happy with the treatment of both horses and riders.
In a race that is known for delivering unpredictable results, one thing is for sure: that Aintree and the BHA have been and will continue to be committed to continually reviewing the race and making it as safe as possible for every horse and rider taking part.
*The review into Safety and Welfare of the Grand National and Grand National course can be downloaded at www.britishhorseracing.com in the about us section.
CHANGES: THE DETAIL
The modifications to the Grand National Course carried out in August following the 2011 John Smith’s Grand National were:-
1. Levelling work has been undertaken on the landing side of the first fence to reduce the current drop and provide a more level landing. This amendment aims to avoid catching out horses that may ‘over-jump’ the fence. The height of the fence will remain unaltered at 4 feet 6 inches (1.37 metres).
2. The fourth fence has been reduced in height by 2 inches to 4 foot 10 inches (1.47 metres). It was identified during the review that fence four and fence six (Becher’s) were statistically more difficult to jump than other fences in all races over the Grand National fences and this is the reason for this change.
3. The landing side of Becher’s Brook (sixth) has been re-profiled to reduce the current drop (i.e. the difference in height between the level of the ground on takeoff and landing) by between 10cm (4 inches) and 12.5cm (5 inches) across the width of the fence. This provides a more level landing area for horses. The drop is now approximately 25cm (10 inches) on the inside of the course and 15cm (6 inches) on the outside of the course. This difference in drop from the inside to the outside of the fence is being retained to encourage riders to spread out across the width of the fence and also to retain the unique characteristics of Becher’s Brook. The height of the fence will remain unaltered at 4 feet 10 inches (1.47 metres).
4. The height of toe boards on all National fences has been increased to 14 inches (36cm). Toe boards are the orange board, positioned at the base of the fence and provide a clear ground line to assist horses in determining the base of the fence.