Are the latest Grand National changes based on acceptability or appeasement? For in their essence they are as big a challenge to the Grand National’s status as they are necessary for the future of British racing itself.
They have been made with admirable research and consensus. The endorsements, especially that from dual Grand National winning rider Ruby Walsh, are very impressive. The logic of their implementation is hard to refute once racing had to swallow the chaos of last year’s race, albeit much of that traceable to the antics of an obscure group whose stated aim is to despatch all horses to sanctuaries.
Widening the walkways in a crowded paddock and shortening the parade will certainly lessen nerves and if a standing start has its problems, it’s preferable to what the present “trot into line” system produced last year with that swirling clock hand of revved up horses and riders circling ever more rapidly as the tension torched their brains.
Having the run to the first fence more than three times as far from the start with a field four times as large as the average race never made much sense and other measures, like better padding for the toe boards of fences, improved run out rails for loose horses, and further veterinary checks for all equine participants make incontestable in themselves without need for all the painstaking trouble that has gone into the changes’ production.
But, and, for someone who rode (and fell!) in the race in 1965 and has now reported on it for over 50 years, it’s a very difficult but, there is a worry as to where we are heading.
For whilst there is massive authority in Ruby Walsh’s conclusion “that we have to evolve to ensure the future of our sport” it doesn’t attempt to answer where that evolution will take us.
While one of the opening aims of the announcement is “to preserve the thrill, characteristics and challenges of the famous race”, and citation after citation welcome the stress racing now makes on equine welfare it is all much less clear as to where risk and safety should meet. And while the support of the RSPCA’s Director of Policy Emma Slawinski is a welcome addition to the Press Release there is unfinished business in her sign off: “we look forward to seeing this announcement pave the way for further changes and remain keen to work with them.”
It is not credible to pretend that the hazards and indeed the dangers of the Grand National are not part of the attraction of the world’s most remunerative as well as most watched equine event. The Grand National magic is built on the unbelievable and, as Chris Cook pointed out in yesterday’s Racing Post, numbers cut to 34 would have meant no Foinavon and no Rachael Blackmore and Minella Times. A smaller higher quality field might produce a better race but it will be dominated by a few juggernaut stables and only differ from any other long distance chase in its prize money and historic setting.
You don’t have to back the splendidly unrepentant stance of Ruby Walsh’s very own father Ted, himself a Grand National winning trainer, to realise what the future might hold. For however necessary they may be to buy us a few more years, I fear that the mood of these changes searches for the oxymoronic myth of a “safe Grand National.” On that route only extinction awaits.