Preventing Grand National deaths | Horse & jockey safety and welfare

In the build-up to the Grand National, there are always safety and welfare issues raised. The last Grand National was no different as animal rights protesters invaded the track and delayed the start of the race. The protests appears to have had an impact too, with several changes being introduced ahead of Grand National 2024.

Grand National 2024 Safety Changes

On average, one horse dies for every 250 races run, although there have been fatalities in each of the Grand National’s last four runnings.

Over the years, Aintree race officials and the British Horse Racing Authority have introduced a number of safety-related changes to the Grand National to make the race safer. This is not only focused around the horses but also on the jockeys. 40 horses running over 30 of the most demanding fences naturally comes with its risks, and animal welfare organisations had long been lobbying for the race to be altered, or even banned altogether.

As a result, a number of safety measures are being introduced to ensure Grand National 2024 will be a significantly safer event.

  1. The total number of Grand National runners has been reduced from 40 to 34. This is the first reduction since the 40-runner cap was established in 1984.
  2. A standing start for the Grand National, rather than the horses walking into the tape. This will be the case for all races over the Grand National course during the 2023-24 season and in the future as well.
  3. The first fence will be moved 60 yards closer to the starting point of the Grand National in an attempt to reduce the speed at which horses approach the first of the 30 fences.
  4. An earlier start time for Grand National 2024, to allow for “the best possible ground conditions”. This means the race is scheduled for 4pm rather than the 5.15pm time of recent years.
  5. The on-course parade for the Grand National will be adapted to avoid horses getting unnecessarily wound up in front of big crowds. The horses will be allowed to canter through instead of being slowly led by their grooms.
  6. Fences are being updated to make them less treacherous obstacles. Specifically, the open ditch which is the 11th and 27th fence on the course will be reduced in height by two inches on the take-off side, while the landing side will be levelled off to reduce the drop. All fences will also have foam and rubber toe boards added.
  7. Further scrutiny of prospective Grand National runners by the Grand National Review Panel, where they have made jumping errors in at least half of their last eight races.
  8. An increase in the minimum rating for Grand National runners, rising from 125 to 130, to ensure all the horses are capable of taking on the challenge ahead of them.
Tiger Roll Grand National 2018

Jockey Davy Russell jumps the last fence on Tiger Roll on his way to winning the Grand National horse race on the final day of the Grand National Festival at Aintree Racecourse in Liverpool, northern England on April 14, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / PAUL ELLIS @SCANPIX

Grand National horse welfare statistics

Hill Sixteen was the most recent horse to suffer a fatal fall in the Grand National, but trainer Sandy Thomson put the blame squarely on the protestors for winding his horse up before the race got underway. He said his horse “just hasn’t taken off at the first fence; he’s got so bloody hyper because of the carry on. He’s jumped round here twice and never had a bother. I don’t know when he last fell. I know how ignorant these people are and they haven’t a bloody clue. They just cause more problems than they ever solve.”

In response, Animal Rising, who led the protests said “Firstly, we want to offer our deepest condolences to anyone connected to Hill Sixteen or who has been impacted by their death. Animal Rising’s actions at the Grand National aimed to prevent exactly that from happening. The only way to prevent more harm from coming to these beautiful creatures is by completely re-evaluating our connection to them and finding a way of loving them that doesn’t put them in harm’s way. We’d welcome dialogue with Sandy Thomson about how to move forwards together and really transform our relationship to horses and, indeed, to all animals and nature.”

2023391141 – Hill Sixteen
202240772 – Eclair Surf & Discorama
202140451 – The Long Mile
201940231 – Up For Review

Preventing Grand National deaths – Horse safety measures

This recent improvement has been put down to several factors. These include altering the fences and also reducing the actual length of the race.

From 2016, the Grand National distance was shortened from 4m4f (4 ½ miles) to 4m2f. The thinking behind this was to reduce the length of time it took to get to the first fence. There are 40 horses that are revved-up at the start of the race. Therefore, there was a tendency to head towards the first fence too quickly, resulting in mistakes and falls.

Other alterations to the fences have included adding in plastic inserts to make the centre of certain obstacles more forgiving. With 16 fences, 14 of which are jumped twice, these changes have clearly made a big difference. Another area the welfare campaigners have focused on in recent times has been the landing side of certain fences being lower than the take-off side. This clearly adds to the difficulty for both horse and jockey with those against it seeing this as a way of tricking the horses. To combat this the Aintree track has made various alterations to the landing side of certain key fences – like Bechers Brook – making the landing side level a lot closer to the take-off side.

The welfare surrounding the Grand National is also not just during the race but after the contest. The Aintree track and racing officials have put ‘hosing down’ facilities in place to quickly cool down the runners.

In a race like the Grand National, there is always going to be people that oppose the race. However, with changes to the length of the course and certain fences, it’s clear these have made a positive impact on the reduction of Grand National deaths in recent years.

The Grand National is billed as the world’s greatest steeplechase. The event provides a stern test for both horse and jockey. Of course, everyone inside and outside of racing wants to make the race as safe as possible, but officials also have to strike a balance that keeps the test of winning the Grand National a unique one and at the moment it looks like they are achieving just that.

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