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 Grand National reduces number runners for further
  bid to increase safety
Greg Wood
• Six fewer horses will participate at Aintree in April 2024
• Race alterations designed to reduce the number of fallers

One horse died in this year's race, which was delayed by 14 minutes after a protest by animal rights activists.

The traditional 40-runner charge to the first in the Grand National has been consigned to history following an announcement on Thursday by Jockey Club Racecourses, which operates Aintree, that the maximum field for the world’s most famous steeplechase will be cut to 34 from next year in an attempt to reduce the number of fallers. The 15% cut in the number of runners that face the 30 National jumps is one of several initiatives after a frenetic and incident-packed race in April, in which five horses – including Hill Sixteen, who suffered a fatal injury – failed to get past the first fence, and three more went at the second. The race was also delayed by 15 minutes as police and security staff dealt with an attempt by animal rights activists to prevent it taking place, further fraying the nerves in what is always a febrile pre-race atmosphere.

Acting on data that shows the cruising speed of National participants has increased as a result of better horses taking part, the first fence will be moved 60 yards closer to the start in an attempt to reduce the field’s speed in the early stages. The track will also implement a standing start in all races over the National fences, including those at the course’s meetings in November and December.

Other adjustments to the track and conditions include a reduction in the height of the 11th fence by 2in, from 5ft to 4ft 10in, and a rise in the minimum rating required for runners to qualify from 125 to 130. There will also be an end to the formal parade with horses led by handlers, with riders instead cantering their horses in front of the stands before turning near the Chair fence and going to the start.

The off-time, meanwhile, will be brought forward from its recent slot of 5.15pm, to a time to be decided following consultation with ITV. This is to “help ensure that Aintree can provide the optimal ground conditions”, given that the track can “dry out quickly on a breezy, sunny April afternoon”.

The Grand National is arguably the sport’s most cherished event, and one that many fans remember as the race that first fired their interest in racing. As a result, changes to the course or conditions are often controversial, with traditionalists arguing that Aintree will eventually eliminate most or all of the quirks and peculiarities that make it unique.

The fact that the latest amendments are being introduced after a high-profile attempt to sabotage the National will also leave some feeling uneasy that the Jockey Club could be bowing to pressure from groups and individuals whose ultimate aim is to see all racing banned.

HoweverSulekha Varma, Aintree’s clerk of the course, said on Thursday that “the welfare of our racehorses and jockeys is our No 1 priority” and that the changes were data-driven.

“We know from research and internal analysis that there is a direct correlation between the number of runners and the risk of falling, unseating or being brought down,” Varma said.

“However, we also must consider that reducing the field by too great a number could create a faster race and have an adverse impact in terms of safety. Using the information available to us and considering the experiences of participants, our conclusion is that 34 should be the maximum number of runners in the race, which we hope will result in the least number of incidents.”

There were three equine fatalities across the three-day National meeting in April, with protesters from Animal Rising attempting to halt the big race itself, although racing chiefs say the changes were not prompted by the protests.

Merseyside Police said 118 people were arrested over the disruption and its investigation is ongoing although no-one has yet been charged six months on.

Emma Slawinski, director of policy at the RSPCA, welcomed the new steps at Aintree, but said more could be done.

Nevin Truesdale, chief executive of Aintree owners the Jockey Club, said the changes were part of the organisation's "relentless focus on welfare".