Smaller field, softer fences: Grand National gets a new look in bid to improve welfare of horses

There will be a new look to the ever-adapting Grand National Steeplechase this year, with organizers of Britain’s biggest horse race taking action to improve safety and avoid a repeat of the chaos sparked by animal-rights activists before last year’s edition.

The 2023 race was delayed by nearly 15 minutes after campaigners scaled fences around the perimeter of the storied Aintree racecourse and got onto the track, with some affixing themselves to the race fences using glue and lock-on devices.

The tension that built up while police, security and even disgruntled local residents fought to keep the protesters off the course might have impacted the race itself. The horses were made to wait longer in the parade ring, before five fell at the first fence — including one, Hill Sixteen, who suffered a fatal injury — and three more went at the second fence.

The Grand National has long been embroiled in a debate over horse welfare because of the size not just of the huge fences but the field of 40, with 16 horses having died in the race since the turn of the century.

Under constant scrutiny from animal campaigners, the British Horseracing Authority took part in a review that also included jockeys, trainers, officials in the racing industry, as well as insights from independent research papers into racehorse welfare.

Changes coming into effect for this year’s Grand National, which is run on Saturday, see the field trimmed to 34 horses in an attempt to reduce collisions and bunching either side of the fences. The first fence is now 60 yards (meters) closer to the start — an estimated reduction of 5 seconds — to stop horses building up too much speed into the first jump.

The race will also start 75 minutes earlier in the day — at 4 p.m. local time — so the course stays as soft as possible, and the horses will set off from a standing start.

Fences will also be softened using foam and rubber toe boards.

While Animal Rising, the protest group whose campaigners caused the delay to last year’s race, insist the changes do not make the race safe and that the horses are still at risk of coming to harm and being killed, it did confirm to The Associated Press that the group will not be disrupting the National this year.

“We all want to see these horses living happy lives in sanctuaries, not being raced,” said Ben Newman, a co-founder of Animal Rising, adding that “a spotlight was put onto the Grand National” by the group’s actions in the 2023 race.

Away from the course, Merseyside Police are deploying undercover officers at the three-day festival starting Thursday and warned the force will deal “robustly” with any incidents of “anti-social behavior, hate crime, disorder and other criminal activity.” Racegoers have been warned to expect a series of security checks.

“These deployments will appear at any time in and around the area of the racecourse,” the police force said, “but the public should not be alarmed by this.”

Corach Rambler, the 2023 winner, is set to be in the field a year later.


AP sports:

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