Tuesday 2 October 2012

Aintree – Stop Tinkering, Start Defending

Recently announced changes to the Grand National course appear to have been welcomed by most groups, although the RSPCA irritatingly gave Aintree a “yellow card”, which presumably means that any further casualties will lead to more protestations.

Lots of changes, most of them minor: start to be moved 90 yards further down the track, away from the noise of the stands; the no-go zone for jockeys to be increased to 30 yards from the starting tape; the starter’s rostrum to be placed alongside that zone; jockeys to be given a more detailed briefing before the race on both the rules and the need for co-operation with the starter; there will be a more consistent methodology (whatever that might mean) for the start; an additional catching pen will be trialled near fence 4 for loose horses; the landing areas for fences 4, 5 and 13 will be levelled out; a different central frame and core material for fences will be trialled at the Becher Chase meeting in December; and there will be an improvement in irrigation.

So, nothing too dramatic. Arguments had been put forward for a major reduction in field size, removing some fences, moving the start much nearer to the first fence and even changing the size and style of the fences. None of these have been acted upon.

The big issue is whether this is the end of the tinkering, or whether there are going to be endless changes after every National, depending on the casualties (which are, sadly, inevitable). No-one has problems with ongoing improvements and fine-tuning, but what shouldn’t be happening is for Aintree and racing to be permanently accommodating the views of lobby groups such as the RSPCA and World Horse Welfare. Indeed the risk is that the tinkering appears to be an implicit acceptance that in some way Aintree is ethically unacceptable from a horse welfare standpoint.

It really is about time that the racing industry embarked on a properly planned PR campaign of its own to defend Aintree, the National and, for that matter, National Hunt racing as a sport that is cherished by a large percentage of the population. In other words there is a line to be drawn here between risk and safety. Racing should not be afraid of standing up for the integrity of our sport.

On a different subject, everyone in racing was terribly upset by the recent death of a great supporter of the Grand National, Lord Oaksey. There was a lovely letter in the Racing Post recently which recalled his winning rides on Happy Medium in the Watney Mann Red Barrel Chase. Apparently part of the prize was a 36-gallon beer barrel and the noble lord, on the journey back home, opened it; with one of the happy drinkers being the horse himself, who swigged a bucket-full of beer. In the same race a year later, as the horse entered the home straight, he seemed to realise where he was. Oaksey reported that Happy Medium “pulled his way to the front like a thirsty man in a crowded bar, and won going away”. Doubtless they celebrated as before. RIP.


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