Mounting concerns over the safety of the Grand National at Aintree Racecourse in England have forced organizers to make modifications to the course following a review of the world's most grueling race after two horses died this year.
However, while there will be changes to fence design, landing areas, and course irrigation, and the size of the field will remain at 40 horses. Also, Becher's Brook, the much-feared fence criticized for its severity, will keep the same drop and dimensions.
The changes, announced Sept. 20 by Aintree and the British Horseracing Authority, will be implemented for the 2013 race scheduled for April 6. Ten horses having died in the past 12 years of the National, sparking criticism from animal welfare groups.
"Balancing the Grand National's enduring appeal while working to reduce risk in the race is a delicate but important balance to strike," said John Baker, who runs the Liverpool racecourse, in a release. "In recent years, we have made significant investments in safety and believe today's announcement demonstrates we will continue to do so."
Organizers have attempted to address the recent problems surrounding the beginning of the race.
Recommendations include moving the start 90 yards forward, away from the noise of the crowd in the grandstand. That will shorten the distance of the race to 4 miles, 3 1/2 furlongs.
Last year, the favorite Synchronised and According to Pete were euthanized after sustaining injuries. Only 15 of the 40 runners finished the race, with many horses colliding with those that fell at the famous high fences. Some critics called for an end to the race.
The congested 40-horse field is the biggest criticism leveled at the National, yet the review said the "course and fences allow enough racing surface to accommodate this number of runners."
Becher's Brook, where Synchronised and According to Pete fell, has undergone "further leveling of the wider landing zone" but the drop of between five feet, two inches and five feet, eight inches remains.
"These latest changes reinforce the fact that we have never stood still when it comes to safety and welfare," Baker said. "However, we are fully aware in racing that you cannot remove risk altogether."
Other changes to be implemented to the Grand National start are as follows:
−The "no-go" zone defined by a line on the track will be extended from 15 yards to around 30 yards from the starting tape.
−Starter's rostrum moved to a position between starting tape and "no-go" zone to reduce potential for horses to get on top of the starting tape prematurely.
−More user-friendly start tapes to be used, with increased visibility.
−A concerted drive to redress the sometimes much faster approaches toward the tape which can occur in bigger races as the jump season progresses.
−A specific briefing between the starters' team and jockeys on the day of the Grand National.
−Additional measures put in place to minimize the possibility of a rider-less horse traveling an extended distance before being caught prior to the start.
"Our objective in recommending changes to the start is to identify ways in which we can create a calmer and more controlled environment for both horse and rider," said Jamie Stier, director of race day operations and regulation for the BHA, in a statement. "We recognize that there is pressure and tension before the race and we want to alleviate that where possible.
"It is possible that a more controlled environment at the start, along with reducing the distance between the start and the first fence, could have the effect of reducing the early speed of the race. If this were to be the case, it would be an added benefit."
Other actions and findings from Aintree and the BHA's annual review of the Grand National include: a three-year research program that will look at alternative fence designs for the Grand National course; an investment of £100,000 to further improve irrigation on the course; and adding additional "catching pens" on the course for loose horses.