UK & World News
Grand National Fences To Be Made Safer
Fences at this year's Grand National are being made safer in the biggest change in the history of the race.
They are among a number of measures aimed at dealing with accusations of animal cruelty after eight horses died in the last decade.
Last year the joint favourite and Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Synchronised had to be put down after falling at fence six of the Grand National - the infamous Becher's Brook - and continuing riderless until suffering leg fractures.
The death, along with that of outsider According to Pete, who was brought down at the same fence on the second circuit, led to calls from animal welfare groups for the Grand National to be banned.
The new fences are still covered in spruce but wooden posts have been replaced by a softer material known as "plastic birch".
Aintree racecourse manager Andrew Tulloch described the birch as "horse friendly", telling Sky News "safety at Aintree is always our top priority for riders and horses and it's something we do not stand still on".
He said the changes should make the Grand National safer but not any easier, insisting the fences will remain the same height.
"The outward appearance of these fences will remain the same.
"The big change here is that traditionally where they had a timber frame to them that timber frame has been replaced by a plastic, more forgiving, birch and on top of that birch there's a minimum of fourteen, maybe even sixteen inches of spruce and the spruce is what the horses can knock off," he said.
Other safety measures being introduced this year include levelling of the landing zone for four of the trickiest jumps, including Becher's Brook.
The start has also been moved by 90ft, away from the crowds and the grandstands to prevent horses from becoming too excitable ahead of the race.
There will be a larger "no-go" zone, the position of the starter's rostrum will be moved and more visible start tape will be used to reduce the potential for horses to get on top of the starting tape prematurely.
Jamie Stier, director of raceday operations and regulation for the British Horseracing Authority, said: "Our objective in recommending changes to the start is to identify ways in which we can create a calmer and more controlled environment for both horse and rider.
"We recognise that there is pressure and tension before the race and we want to alleviate that where possible."
The charity World Horse Welfare welcomed the changes but its chief executive Roly Owers has told Sky News he believes fewer horses should start the race.
"The challenge that the Grand National faces is the number of fallers. For the Grand National that's up to 50%, which is five times more than over the standard national hunt fences, so there is something about the Grand National that's creating this number of fallers."
Sky News has been told there are no plans to reduce the number of horses in the Grand National this April.
John Baker, who runs Aintree Racecourse as part of his role as North West regional director for Jockey Club Racecourses, said: "These latest changes enforce the fact that we have never stood still when it comes to safety and welfare."