Horse Racing Sports News

Grand National changes: Number of runners reduced to…

Back in April, there was plenty of fallout from the 2023 running of the Grand National, which was targeted by Animal Rising protesters. The welfare of those horses running in the race was again questioned as the world famous contest was not only visibly protested but was plagued by horse casualties, and not for the first time. Now, six months on, it looks as though the animal welfare concerns have been listened to. Or have they?

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Photo by Icon Sport.

Change to Grand National field is coming and it’s coming soon, but what sort of change is it? Is it real change or is it the sort of change that won’t actually change anything? Let’s find out.

For the first time since 1984, The Jockey Club has announced that the standard maximum Grand National field size will be decreased from next year. This change comes after Hill Sixteen, a ten-year-old gelding trained by Sandy Thomson, Dark Raven, a six-year-old gelding trained by Willie Mullins, and Envoye Special, a nine-year-old gelding trained by Keiran Burke, all sadly lost their lives when falling at various stages of Aintree’s flagship race earlier in the year.

What are the latest Grand National changes?

Each year, The Jockey Club, with the support of the British Horseracing Authority, otherwise known as the BHA, is tasked with reviewing the Grand National. This is said to be part of the “continued evolution of the race”, though if we’re being completely realistic, it’s probably more of a box ticking exercise than anything else.

The primary Grand National change is set to be a reduction in Grand National runners. As mentioned when discussing the fallout from the 2023 Grand National back in April, it’s always been as clear as day that too many horses run in the race, even if people don’t want to admit it, so a reduction in Grand National runners is naturally a logical move. However, is the reduction big enough? Or is it merely another attempt to avert the eyes of those who dislike the way the race is run?

Here is the full list of Grand National changes set to come into action ahead of the next running of the Grand National:

  • Number of Grand National runners cut from 40 to 34
  • First fence to be moved closer to the start of the race
  • A standing start is set to be enforced
  • Every fence is to have a foam and rubber toe board attached
  • Height of fence 11 is due to be reduced by two inches
  • Minimum handicap rating has been raised to 130
  • The start of the race has been brought forward to ensure the best ground

I’m not sure about you, but I looked at those changes for the first time and thought is that it? Listen, it’s clear that some attempts are being made, but is that enough? Are such changes going to make a positive impact that is there for all to see? I’m far from convinced.

The Grand National field size has long been a huge part of the problem. Asking 40 horses all running in close proximity to safely jump fences that are both larger and more intimidating than regular National Hunt fences is far too much. Too many falls occur, while too many horses lose their lives, even if the percentage figure of deaths compared to the numbers of runners is comparatively low. Therefore, addressing the Grand National field size was always going to be one way of making a positive change, but has that been achieved?

Are these Grand National changes really enough to improve horse safety?

As touched on above, until now the number of horses running in the Grand National has been set at 40. It’s now going to be set at 34. Is that really the headline change? Am I wrong in thinking that removing only six horses from the line-up won’t really raise the safety of those involved all that much? This seems on par with a 13-year-old doing the washing up somewhat hastily, and all so their mum doesn’t nag them for the next couple of hours. In other words, if those at the The Jockey Club and the BHA seriously think this will alleviate concerns and quell any future protests then they’ve almost certainly got another thing coming, as that won’t do it, let’s be real.

The other Grand National changes all seem incredibly minor too. A standing start should help to settle horses better at the start of the race, sure. This is better than being asked to line up and walk in several times before setting off, which often goes awry, but that doesn’t address the issue of fence severity. Reducing the height of one fence isn’t going to dramatically increase the safety of those involved either, is it? And as for some of the other “changes”, well, let’s be honest, they’re not even changes. The ground wasn’t an issue when Hill Sixteen, Envoye Special or Dark Raven died six months ago, and it won’t be the reason if, or should I say when, the next casualty arises.

Grand National Changes
Photo by Icon Sport.

You’re never going to be able to make this race completely safe, I get that. Realistically, you can’t completely eliminate the risk without putting a complete stop to the contest overall. However, you could seriously reduce the risk by making substantial changes to the Grand National field size and by properly altering the fences so that they’re not as sizable, and that’s the issue here. If changes need to be made, make them. Make serious changes to massively reduce the risks. Would having 25-26 runners racing at the same venue, jumping slightly less dangerous fences really take away from the spectacle? In my book, it wouldn’t, but something along those lines might just have real, tangible positive knock-on effects in terms of safety and horse welfare.

At the end of the day, as not only someone who regularly writes about horse racing, but as a fan of the sport, I enjoy the buzz of Grand National day, and I certainly wouldn’t want to see the race done away with, but being a fan of the race doesn’t equate to being ignorant to all else. I have ears; I’ve heard the safety concerns, and I have eyes, eyes that can clearly see that those concerns are quite real ones. As racing fans, we can bang on about the traditions of the race, stating that the element of potential peril has always been part of what makes the Grand National what it is, but times move on, things change, often for the better. Just because something has always happened, doesn’t mean it always should.

My point is that if changes need to be made, whether those obsessed with traditions that begun in a previous century agree or not, then The Jockey Club should make them and make them properly, as opposed to making seemingly token changes that almost certainly won’t please anybody.

SUMMARY: Back in April, I concluded by saying that the race needn’t be banned, but that serious Grand National changes needed to be made. Changes have been made, but they’re very minor, and as a result, I make a repeat of last April’s fallout long odds-on to happen all over again in six months time. 

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