Monday 15 April 2013

Aintree and The National – Grand Result for Racing

As readers of the blog will know, I’m a huge fan of Aintree and much prefer it to Cheltenham. Alas though, in recent years I’ve been going up to the Grand National meeting with an increasingly heavy heart, in view of all the controversy surrounding the course and injuries / fatalities to horses, not helped by the stance adopted by the RSPCA (Royal Society for Permanent Criticism of Aintree).

But what a result this year, and a really fantastic outcome for our sport. When all 40 runners sailed over Becher’s, the roar from the crowd was truly heart-warming. Hats off to Aintree for all the work they’d done to maintain the going, and the softening of the fence cores has clearly helped enormously, as did the far less frenetic than usual start, with a shorter run to the first fence. Without doubt, the National is the most famous race in the world, and the only time that our sport truly takes centre stage. Lots of statistics were being bandied about, such as that half the UK population bets on the race, £150m staked, 600 million people watching worldwide, etc. This certainly goes right to the heart of racing’s brand value and the aims of Great British Racing that were covered in the last blog.

The other statistic that I welcomed was that there were no more than 20 protesters at Aintree. I really hope that the BHA and all the bodies connected with racing do everything possible now to maintain the high ground in defence of National Hunt racing, and challenge the nay-sayers who argue that in some way jumping is cruel. As the Aintree changes have shown so purposefully, we’re doing everything possible to exercise our duty of care towards the animals that we all love and admire.

When I saw Frankel thrash Excelebration in the Queen Anne at Royal Ascot, I felt that was the best horse-race that I’d ever seen, or would probably ever see. But then to be present to watch the sublime performance of Sprinter Sacre destroy Cue Card and Flemenstar in the Melling Chase was to my humble eyes even better. Stupendous.

I was also interested to see the announcement from the Jockey Club that the £45m make-over at Cheltenham will go ahead straight after the 2014 Festival meeting, with the aim of completing it for 2016. There is going to be a new grandstand complex, some spectacular tiered viewing of the parade ring and much improved crowd circulation around it. As always in racing, there were a few vested interests fighting against it, but no doubt they will be adequately compensated and it certainly looks as though this investment plan is going to go forward quickly.

So with the Aintree spectacular and an imminent huge upgrade at Cheltenham, it really looks as though National Hunt racing is going from strength to strength. Having said that, I was wondering what other changes would make a real difference. I would certainly like to see much higher prize-money at the October Cheltenham meeting and really use this to kick-start the jumps season, and hopefully not clash it with Ascot’s Champions Day. At the other end of the season I’d also love to see either Ayr and / or the Sandown mixed meeting similarly revamped so that we really have a grand finale through March and into May. And then the race planners can have a look across the season and plug some of the weaker periods with bigger races as part of a high profile National Hunt series. Anyone against, please take one step forward.


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