Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Evolution of the Grand National

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the Grand National has changed out of all recognition since it was first run, as the Grand Liverpool Steeplechase, in 1839. Details of the National Course in its early days are sketchy, but when the runners headed ‘out in the country’ they really did, into the open countryside, some of which was ploughed, beyond the confines of Aintree Racecourse. Obstacles include natural banks, brooks, ditches and hedges, a stone wall and two standard hurdles in the home straight. 

Time, and changing attitudes, saw some of those obstacles done away with and the “country” incorporated into the racecourse proper, to create a recognisably modern National Course. Of course, the National has continued to evolve over the years, to protect the welfare of horses and jockeys, without lessening the spectacle of what is, after all, an iconic, unique steeplechase. 

Of all the Grand National obstacles, the one that has achieved most attention in recent years is Becher’s Brook, a 4’ 10” fence on the take-off side which, at one point, had a steep 3’ drop on the landing side. Historically, it was not uncommon for stricken horses to slide back into the infamous ditch, but the ditch was filled in 1989 and the landing side has been modified numerous times, to create a less precipitous drop of between 6” and 10”. 

Similarly, the traditional, timber frames and guard rails of many of the National fences have been replaced with flexible plastic or foam-padded alternatives and guard rails have been raised to provide horses with a clear line of sight. The height of some fences has been reduced, slightly, over the years, but the filling in of ditches and levelling of landing sides at some of the more ‘macabre’ fences, such as Becher’s Brook and The Chair, has had a more profound effect on safety. 

Aside from modifications to the obstacles, the National Course has been widened in parts, so that horses, loose or otherwise, can safely bypass the fences, without causing major interference to the remaining runners in the race. The position of the start has also been moved closer to the first fence, by a half a furlong – resulting in the shortening of the overall distance by the same yardage – in an effort to reduce the speed of approach and, hence, the number of fallers. 

Stricter entry requirements, increased prize money and the compression of the handicap to encourage highly-rated horses to run, coupled with extensive safety changes, has arguably made the Grand National a more competitive, but less hazardous, race than ever before. 

Twenty years ago, the winner of the 1999 Grand National, Bobbyjo, raced from 14lb out of the handicap and although he clearly didn’t have too much weight to retain a winning chance, the same cannot be said for the other 18 runners who raced from out of the handicap, four of whom were at 30lb ‘wrong’ at the weights. By contrast, in the 2018 Grand National, despite the lowest-rated horses to beat the ballot being officially rated 142, as they were in 1999, they all carried their correct weight of 10st 5lb, comfortably inside the handicap proper.