New safety measures brought in at the Grand National to ensure 'best possible welfare conditions'

ITV Granada Reports Sports Correspondent Chris Hall takes a look at the changes for the Grand National 2024.

The number of runners allowed to enter the Grand National has been reduced in a bid to improve safety around the race.

Horses will also be slowed down at the beginning of the race as they approach the first fence, which has been moved closer to the start line.

A standing start will also be put in place instead of the traditional rolling one.

The moves come in a "continued focus to ensure the best possible welfare conditions" for those racing in the annual three-day festival held at Aintree Race Course in Liverpool, the Jockey Club said.

Announcing the measures in October 2023, the body, which runs the Grand National Festival, said it had "recognised the need for more substantial updates on several key areas in order to better protect the welfare of racehorses and jockeys".

Campaigners have long called for tighter safety measures, with animal cruelty charities condemning the races.

In 2023 three horses died during the Aintree Festival, while in 2022 the total was four horses, including two in the Grand National.

A total of 63 horses have now died at Aintree since 2000.

Runners and riders at the start of the Grand National Handicap Chase. Credit: PA Images

What are the changes being made to the Grand National Festival?

  • Reducing the risk of incidents by decreasing the current maximum number of runners from 40 to 34.

  • Reducing the opportunity for horses to build up too much initial speed by moving the first fence closer to the start and implementing a standing start.

  • Providing the best possible ground conditions for the horses by bringing the start time forward from 5.15pm to 4pm.

  • Investing in further developments to the course infrastructure

  • Ensuring that the horses participating are in the best condition to do so

Following a "continued evolution of the famous race" and an annual review of the "world's most famous steeplechase", the Jockey Club announced the safety measures due to come into force for the 2024 event.

It says it created the measures after speaking to jockeys and trainers, those in the racing industry, the British Horseracing Authority (BHA), and also using independent research papers into racehorse welfare, as well as statistical data analysis relating to the race.

Nevin Truesdale, Chief Executive of The Jockey Club, said the changes to the Grand National are part of the organisation’s "relentless focus on welfare".

He said: “The Randox Grand National is the most iconic race in the world and one which transcends our sport.

"For many it is also their introduction to horseracing and I believe that a competitive, fair and safe Randox Grand National is one of the best ways of ensuring the sport continues to thrive for generations to come and remains an important part of Britain’s culture and economy.

"That means our sport, like many other sports have done, needs to recognise when action needs to be taken to evolve because the safety and care of horses and jockeys will always be our number one priority.

"In making these changes at Aintree we are underlining our relentless focus on welfare and our commitment to powering the future of British racing."

In response to the measures animal welfare charity Animal Rising says until horse racing is formally end in the UK "no safety changes will be adequate".

Louisa Hillwood, spokesperson for Animal Rising said: “These changes are nothing more than an attempt to hide the realities of horse racing from the British public.

"Just as factory farms have rebranded themselves as free-range, or cage-free, the Jockey Club is trying to create a fanciful image of the industry.

"All this completely ignores our fundamentally broken relationship with other animals and the natural world.

"The Jockey Club needs to pay attention to the 54% of Brits who say that the Grand National is cruel and find a way of showing love for these beautiful animals in a way that isn’t using or harming them.

"We all want to see these horses living happy lives in sanctuaries, not being raced; just as we need to see mass rewilding and a plant-based food system to really tackle our climate and nature crises.”

The Grand National has been held every year since 1839. Credit: PA Images

The club believes by reducing the number of runners from 40, introduced in 1984, to 34 it will reduce the risk of incidents during the race.

Moving the first fence 60 yards closer to the start will also slow the early stages of the race, reducing the opportunity for horses to build up too much speed, it said.

Implementing a standing start that will apply to all races over the Grand National fences throughout the 2023-24 season, the club added.

The start of the race will also be brought forward which will "provide the optimal ground conditions" as the ground can "dry out quickly on a breezy, sunny April afternoon".

Horses will also no longer be led by a handler onto the course during the pre-Grand National parade, and will instead be released at the end of the horsewalk to then canter in front of the grandstands to allow them to prepare for their race in their own time. 

Fences will also be changed in a bid to improve safety, with foam and rubber toe boards added, as well as reducing the height of Fence 11 by two inches.

The Jockey Club says in the past decade it has spent more than £2million on horse welfare measures at the Merseyside racecourse.

Sulekha Varma, The Jockey Club’s North West Head of Racing and Clerk of the Course at Aintree, led the review process and oversees all aspects of the racing surface, fences and pre-race preparatory areas for participants.

She said: “The welfare of our racehorses and jockeys is our number one priority at Aintree and we have invested significantly in equine welfare over many years.

"We continually review the Grand National and following an in-depth, evidence-based review process this year, we are announcing several changes as part of its continued evolution."

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