There are many features that make the sport of horse racing so beloved around the world. For the fans of the sport for whom speed is king, flat racing provides an abundance of action throughout the year. But in terms of sheer excitement and drama, the National Hunt sphere is tough to beat. There are after all few spectacles so thrilling as seeing a one-tonne equine star sailing through the air to clear a fence, or so dramatic as witnessing a runner snatch defeat from the jaws of victory with a tumble at the final flight – we are looking at you here Annie Power!
An essential aspect of the thrills and spills of the sport, National Hunt fences do nevertheless come with risks attached in terms of injuries and very sadly fatalities in some instances. Risks which some critics deem to be unacceptable, with regular petitions to make the fences safer for runners and riders alike. And over the years no jumps race has felt the ire of the protest groups to a greater degree than the biggest of them all – the Grand National at Aintree.
A national institution more than a horse race, the Merseyside marvel made its debut back in 1839, and over the years has seeped into the public consciousness to a degree that puts all other racing contests firmly in the shade. And a major part of this appeal stems from the obstacles which the runners must negotiate.
Unique in the world of jumps racing, the likes of Becher’s Brook, the Chair and Canal Turn are as well known as the famous horses, such as Red Rum and Tiger Roll, to have conquered this marathon event. But what is it that makes the Grand National fences so distinct from those seen elsewhere in the National Hunt game? Why have they drawn such criticism? And, has anything been done to make them safer over the years?
Grand National: The Early Years
Rapidly closing in on its 200th Anniversary, the Grand National has represented something of a unique test of runners and riders throughout its history. And perhaps the clearest indication that improvements have in fact been made over the years comes through a look at what faced the runners in the earliest editions.
A cross-country contest in the truest sense of the word in those embryonic years, the field of runners were required to leave the racecourse proper and gallop over the open fields of the countryside, navigating obstacles identified with flags such as farmers gates, natural brooks, living hedges and solid stone walls. Tracking alongside the Leeds-Liverpool canal, runners then re-joined the racecourse proper, taking in the straight before heading into the countryside for a second circuit.
Whilst the National Course is now marked and incorporated into the Aintree track, commentators still refer to the runners “heading out into the country” to this day. Thankfully though, those stone wall obstacles were scrapped after only five years, and over time, the hedges, natural brooks and gates have all also been replaced, becoming slightly more conventional – whilst still being immediately recognisable from the types of obstacles seen elsewhere.
Standard Fences vs Grand National Fences
In modern UK horse racing, the minimum height of a fence is set at four feet, six inches, with the width at the top to be not less than one foot six inches. And at the majority of tracks, the obstacles do tend to come in at close to those minimum measurements. Things are, however, a little different in the National.
Of the 16 individual obstacles on show in the Aintree showpiece (14 of which are jumped twice), seven are between four feet, six inches and four feet, 10 inches in height, seven are five feet tall, with the Chair being the biggest at five feet, two inches. Widths at the top of the obstacles meanwhile lie between two feet, nine inches and three feet, six inches. The one real outlier in terms of size being the pint-sized water jump which comes in at only two feet, six inches in height, ignoring the usual height stipulation – but then this is a pretty unusual race.
Grand National Fences Are Bigger
So, on average, the Grand National fences are bigger than those seen in a standard national hunt contest, and in the case of the largest fences, considerably so. This greater size is however really only a small part of the reason that the 4m2½f event is such a jumping challenge, with many of the obstacles possessing additional features which add significantly to their difficulty.
Looking at the more famous fences; Becher’s Brook features a steep drop on the landing side, in addition to the track turning left-handed almost immediately following the jump; Canal Turn is laid out across a ninety-degree turn in the course; Valentine’s Brook has a wide brook on the landing side measuring around five feet, six inches; Westhead features a five feet, six inches ditch on the landing side; and the notoriously difficult Chair has a ditch on the take-off side measuring five feet, six inches, with the landing side being six inches higher than the take-off side. With a variety of landing side drops and ditches also scattered amongst the less well-known obstacles, it’s easy to see that this represents far from your ordinary jumping challenge.
Imposing and intimidating in appearance, the National fences are undoubtedly more difficult to negotiate than a standard National Hunt obstacle. And with increased difficulty comes increased errors, fallers, injuries and fatalities. Unwanted features of racing at the best of times, the fact that such instances have frequently occurred in what is one of the most high-profile races on the planet, has unsurprisingly seen the safety record of the Grand National scrutinised to a greater degree than any other event. Many have called for the fences to be made easier, whilst the more extreme protesters would like the race banned altogether.
And, in the face of such scrutiny, and with the best interests of the horses in mind, Aintree organisers have reacted, first relatively slowly and intermittently, before something of a deluge of changes in more recent times.
Early Aintree Alterations
Whilst the exact heights of the obstacles in the earliest editions of the race seem to have been lost to the sands of time, the dimensions and features of the fences described above have been pretty consistent in the modern era. That’s not to say that there haven’t been some changes over the lifespan of the race though, with the following alterations all taking place.
- 1840s – One famous aspect of the course which had endured ever since the inaugural edition is that of the Melling Road – an actual road the runners have to cross as part of the course. This section of the Grand National layout, whilst still unusual, certainly isn’t quite the challenge it was, with the earliest editions having featured two hedges to be jumped – one onto the road, and one back off it – in addition to a bank jump immediately following the second hedge. Given the inherent risk of landing on and jumping from such an unforgiving surface, the hedges, and indeed the subsequent bank, were jettisoned during the 1840s.
- 1845 – Stonewall obstacles were removed, the most famous of which made up part of the water jump.
- 1888 – The first two fences were moved closer to the start, in order to decrease the speed at which they were taken.
- 1930s – The 1930s saw one of the Grand National’s most famous obstacles gain its name. Previously known as the Monument Jump, fence number 15 was renamed “The Chair” due to the presence of the racecourse judge atop a tall chair in the vicinity of the obstacle.
- 1954 & 1987 – Reductions in the drop on the landing side of Becher’s Brook.
- 1990 – The brook on the landing side of Becher’s Brook was filled in, further simplifying the obstacle.
- 2011 – The drop on the landing side of the Thorn Fence, taken as the first and 17th obstacle, was reduced.
2013: Time for Change
As discussed, the Grand National certainly hasn’t been averse to change over the years. However, throughout its history, these alterations have come pretty sporadically and generally only affected the odd fence here and there. That, however, was all to change in 2013, the year in which the most sweeping changes in the history of this great race were to take place.
Whilst improving the safety of runners and riders had always appeared to have been on the minds of race organisers, a spate of 11 equine fatalities in the race between the years of 2002 and 2011 – including two in both the 2011 and 2012 editions – brought the issue more sharply into focus and a comprehensive review ensued.
Following the assessment, a number of alterations were recommended and scheduled to be implemented ahead of the 2013 renewal. Of these changes, by far the most significant concerned not the heights nor widths of the fences – which were to remain largely unaltered – but rather the manner in which the obstacles were to be constructed.
A More Flexible Approach
Throughout the history of the National, the iconic fences had traditionally been constructed using a sturdy timber frame which provided both a solid structure and lent much of the height to the obstacles. Whilst a rubber outer layer was added in order to dampen impact, the rigidity of the frame nevertheless regularly resulted in jumping errors being severely punished. The use of so solid a structure undoubtedly does increase the risk of fallers; however, these sturdy frames were really a necessity in order to bear the weight of the many tonnes of the iconic Lake District spruce with which the fences are topped.
With the aim of the review being to increase the safety of the race whilst maintaining its signature look, what was needed was a substance strong enough to withstand the load of spruce, whilst also being far more forgiving of jumping errors. And, thankfully, a newly developed material known as “plastic birch” appeared to possess the attributes to tick both boxes. By working plastic birch into the construction of the fences, it became possible to lower the height of the timber frame by around 15 inches, with the next 15 inches then consisting of the new material, which was then topped with 14 to 16 inches of spruce which could easily be knocked off should a horse make contact.
With this new structure, any runner clearing the height of this lower timber frame has a far greater chance of safely navigating the obstacle, whilst those clearing both the frame and the plastic birch section will almost certainly reach the other side without issue, due to the extremely forgiving nature of the upper spruce layer.
Whilst the more flexible core of the fences was expected to have the greatest impact on the safety of the races, the review didn’t stop there, with the following alterations all also being introduced ahead of the 2013 renewal.
- Landing side of the first fence raised to become level with the take-off side.
- Fences three and 11, both of which are open ditches, switched to an all-natural birch core, with the timber frame completely removed.
- Height of the fourth fence reduced by two inches to four feet, 10 inches.
- Fence five and 21 had the landing side levelled, prompted by the obstacle being bypassed the second time around in 2012 whilst a jockey received treatment for a broken leg.
- The drop on the landing side of Becher’s Brook was further reduced by around five inches. Featuring a difference of fully three feet between the take-off side and landing side in the earliest editions of the race, this drop is now down to 10 inches. It is hoped that the fence now strikes the right balance between retaining its unique character and protecting the safety of the runners and riders.
- Distance to the first fence reduced by 90 yards, shortening the overall race distance to 4m2½f and decreasing the speed of the runners as they reach the obstacle. It is also believed that by moving the start away from the noises of the crowd the concentration of the runners may be improved.
- Height of the orange toe-boards, essentially visibility features to help horses get a good sight of the fence in advance, is raised to 14 inches.
What Impact Have the Changes Made?
When taken together, that’s quite an overhaul to the UK’s most iconic horse race. But has it actually made the race any safer? The best way to answer this question is by taking a look at the evidence in terms of the numbers of fallers and fatalities in the race, both before and after the changes were implemented. The table below details the number of finishers in the eight years before the changes to the fences, and the eight years after, detailing the reasons for the non-completions and the number of fatalities
Finishers Before the Changes to the Fences (2005-2012)
|Year||No. of Finishers||Fell or brought down||Unseated||Refused||Pulled up||Other||Fatalities|
|8 year avg||15.25||10.375||5.75||0.875||7.375||0.375||1|
Finishers After the Changes to the Fences (2013-2021)
|Year||No. of Finishers||Fell or brought down||Unseated||Refused||Pulled up||Other||Fatalities|
|8 year avg||16.875||5.625||4.5||0.25||12.125||0.125||0.25|
So, what does the information tell us? The first thing to note is that whilst the alterations don’t appear to have made a huge difference in the average number of finishers, (although an increase of over 1.5 runners per race is not to be sniffed at), where they have made a significant impact is in the numbers of fallers. Taking all non-completions directly related to an error at a fence (i.e. falls, runners being brought down and runners being unseated), there has been a decrease of an average of six runners per year, or in percentage terms, 37.2%. Eight years is admittedly a small sample, but even at this early stage, such a large improvement does seem significant.
And, of course, the cause for the most celebration is the marked decrease in the number of equine fatalities since the fences were made “easier”, with the alterations immediately resulting in a run of six successive editions without a death to report. Sadly, that sequence came to an end with a single fatality in both 2019 and 2021, but a total of two for the 2013 to 21 period still compares very favourably with the tally of eight between 2005 and 2012.
Reception to Changes
Encouraging as those figures are, two deaths over eight years is still two too many. Nevertheless, the reaction of the charity World Horse Welfare to the changes was largely positive, with chief executive Roly Owers highlighting the improvements made to the fences in welcoming “Aintree’s demonstrated commitment to making the course safer”. As ever though, there will always be room for improvement with Owers going on to add: ”
While there is clearly no magic formula here, changes need to be made to significantly reduce the faller rate which will reduce the number of injuries, fatalities and loose horses which pose risks to themselves and others on the course… We believe the single most effective way of doing this is to trial a reduction in the field size – say for three years.
The fact that the main focus of complaint appears to have switched away from the fences and towards the numbers of runners is perhaps as good as an acknowledgement of the fine work done to the fences.
Further Improvements to Come?
Far from resting on their laurels, the race organisers seem committed to continually improving the safety record of what is the single biggest jewel in the National Hunt crown. Managing director of Aintree Julian Thicke stating that, “The safety and welfare of horses and riders is always our number one priority at Aintree. This is the latest stage in our continuous drive to make the Grand National Course as safe as possible,” and, “We will continue to monitor this carefully and make further improvements and modifications to the course if required as part of our ongoing commitment to safety”.
Changed for the Better
Each year in early April, the more wizened racing fans can be heard to lament something along the lines of, “Aaah, the National – it’s not the race it was when I was a lad/lass, you know.” And there is undoubtedly a fair amount of truth to such utterances. With safer fences, lower rates of fallers and fatalities, the National undoubtedly is a little different than in years gone by, but it is all the better for it and continues to provide the single greatest spectacle in the jumps racing game.