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Ruby welcomes latest Grand National changes

For better, for worse, each new running of the world's most famous steeplechase adds to the emotion which always surrounds the race.

It is just as well, then, that those charged with preserving the status of the Aintree Grand National should be at such pains to resist knee-jerk solutions to its latest crisis.

If anything, yesterday's press release from the British Horseracing Authority (BHA), which outlined the latest series of tweaks that are to be made, went out of the way to downplay the "considered modifications" to the big race.

And last night, the changes were given a thumbs-up by dual National winner Ruby Walsh, who said: "It's no harm. The changes they made last year, I might have initially been opposed to them, but they were good.

"I suppose anything you can do, going forward, to help the Grand National is a good thing. I don't see anything wrong with them (the changes), I think they are a good idea."

The changes come in response to last April's events, when two horses died at Aintree. Freakish as it seemed, an inquiry into the circumstances of each accident in this year's race recently concluded that neither could be attributed directly to a fall -- Synchronised was injured when running loose, while According To Pete was brought down by another runner.

The latter case did prompt calls to reduce the limit of 40 runners, but the alterations announced instead focused on the start. Synchronised had delayed proceedings when unseating his rider on his way to post and there then followed two false starts. The BHA rebuked all 40 riders without charging any.

It has long been felt that the run to the first obstacle is too much of a stampede, with riders goaded by a charged atmosphere in the adjacent stands. Following consultation with jockeys and animal welfare groups, next year's race will be abbreviated by 90 yards.

The start will be moved away from the enclosures and the buffer zone before the tape will be doubled to 30 yards. The starting apparatus still retained a rather antediluvian aspect last year, and a brighter tape will be deployed in future.

Jamie Stier, BHA director of raceday operations, said that the objective was to "create a calmer and more controlled environment for both horse and rider."

An additional catching pen will be erected to corral loose horses. No change is being made to the fence dimensions, but research is under way into softening the core material, at present comprising timber and rubber. Roly Owers, the chief executive of World Horse Welfare, identified this as an especially welcome development, but was disappointed by the resistance to a reduced field.

"While there is clearly no magic formula, changes need to be made to reduce the faller rate," he said. "We believe the single most effective way of doing this is to trial a reduction in the field size, say for three years. We do not believe that this would alter the spectacle or character of the race."

Key Aintree changes

• Start to be moved forward 90 yards, away from the crowds and grandstands.

• Race run over about 4m 3.5f.

• 'No-go' zone at start extended from 15 yards to around 30 yards.

• More user-friendly start tapes to be used, with increased visibility.

• Landing area levelled at fences four, five and 13.

• Catching pen at fence four to assist capture of riderless horses. (©Independent News Service)

Irish Independent