Matt Tombs / Monday 8th April 2013 / 14:15
The Grand National was saved on Saturday. That sounds melodramatic – and probably is. Even if the race had again been marred be equine fatalities, it was still extremely likely it’d have been run next year. However, it’s not certain. The angle taken by the non-racing media would’ve been crucial and every bulletin on television I saw in the run up to the race focused on the possibility of more horses being killed.
There was a small, but not negligible, possibility that opponents of racing would have whipped up a sufficient firestorm to persuade the establishment to ban the race. Whilst the vast majority of the public is in favour of the Grand National - given how tough times are for many, it’s hardly going to be high on the person on the street’s list of priorities.
Given that, the right approach had to be to do what was needed to ensure the race continues. What follows therefore isn’t a criticism of racing’s authorities – I think they chose the right course for the 2013 National.
Firstly, the good news - getting rid of the parade, moving the start away from the stands and the actual starting procedure all worked really well. It’s hard as a spectator on television to gauge how much difference it made but not having the horses milling around on the track for 15-20 minutes in front of a huge, noisy crowd must help in keeping them calm.
That in itself should help achieve a good start and horses being calmer should mean less falls due to horses being buzzed up in the early part of the race. Equally, fewer should get very tired having used up energy in the preliminaries, which should mean less tired falls later on. Importantly, it made our sport look slick and professionally run, in stark contrast to the shambles of false starts in the past. The fact that racing’s authorities were prepared to abolish the parade, which was part of the traditional pomp of the race, implies that they aren’t stuck in the past – and it’s a nice change to be able to say that.
The other big change was to the fences. There have been lots of gradual changes to them and the course (leveling the drops etc) over the last 20 years or so. That continual evolution has changed the race hugely without it ever seeming like the race was materially different from the previous year. This year it looked like a revolution with the fences much, much softer.
All the horses were still going at the Canal Turn, (apparently for the first time in the race’s history,) and there were only 2 fallers, (6 unseated). That’s an astonishing figure for a 40 runner steeplechase over 30 fences. To put it in context, in the first 13 renewals of the century, the average number of fallers was just over 10, (and average number of unseats 6.)
It’s too early to draw any firm conclusions from one renewal but having just watched the last two runnings again, the fences looked completely different this year. There was little substance to them by comparison – the tops just looked to be loose spruce and horses hitting them 6 inches from the top just brushed it out of the way.
A non-racing friend watching his first National for several years described it as ‘a long distance hurdle’, (before thanking me for tipping him virtually the only horse who couldn’t jump the obstacles.) That’s obviously an exaggeration, but it made me think what a better description might be.
I’ve never been to Auteuil but I understand that the chase course has fences of different sizes (one big ditch in particular) and that the tops of the fences are soft. We’ve seen stacks of French chasers come over here and jump through the top of park fences. In the days when those were stiffer, that used to cause a real problem and ex-French horses were, and still are, re-trained to jump over rather than through our fences. I’ve heard Auteuil described as a semi cross-country chase course and perhaps that’s what the National has become.
It’s understandable that everyone prominent in racing has been coerced into saying how good the new format is. The reality though is that it’s not slightly less of a challenge, it’s much less of a challenge. If you ran the National over the Mildmay fences there wouldn’t be that much difference now.
What captured the wider public’s imagination was that uniquely difficult challenge – I doubt the public are interested in an ordinary steeplechase. Wisely, nobody says so, but many members of the wider public actually liked the fact that lots of horses fell (provided they weren’t hurt) as that was part of the spectacle. Will they want to watch a race where virtually every horse jumps round, (other than those that pull up)?
The National has such a high profile that its huge following won’t be decimated next year by the changes, nor the year after. But as it gradually dawns on the wider public that it’s now just another horse race, I wonder whether interest will ebb away. Alastair Down wrote in Sunday’s Racing Post “the old race has been reformed to reflect modern values and expectations.” That’s true – but it’s the values and expectations of the racing world, (as influenced by various stakeholders including racegoers and the RSPCA.) I’m not sure it reflects the values and expectations of the once a year punter who has no other interest in racing. It may be that in a decade or two’s time, we’ll look back and see the 2013 running as the beginning of the end of the National as an iconic sporting event.
The winner, Auroras Encore (66/1) may have been just about the least backed horse in the race. Since finishing 2nd in the Scottish National off a 6lb higher mark, he’d run 7 times, tipping up twice, pulling up once and beaten 68l, 24l, 46l & 53l. If I’d been given 30 picks I doubt he’d have been one of them.
With future Nationals in mind, the question is whether the major changes to the fences mean a different sort of horse will be winning the revised race. The previous 5 winners included an open Grade 1 winner (Neptune Collonges), an RSA 2nd (Comply Or Die,) an Arkle runner (Don’t Push It,) and also a Kim Muir winner (Ballabriggs). The emphasis had seemed to be on classier horses winning. The revised National presents a totally different challenge and might need a different type.
The fact that virtually any horse that meets the race qualifications can get a run now (because there are fewer horses and owners) allows less classy types to get a chance of winning - Aurora’s Encore wouldn’t have got a run off 137 in many recent Nationals. Because they go so fast over the smaller obstacles, so much stamina will be needed that the dour stayers, not the classier types, might keep winning. The other marathon handicaps during the season might become the key trials.
The fact that two horses with stamina seemingly proven, (last year’s winner of the 4 miler, Teaforthree, and 2011 National runner up Oscar Time), faded badly on the run in might support that theory. Cappa Bleu again got outpaced at a crucial time but stayed on to grab 2nd at the post.
National Day kicked off with the Grade 2 Mersey Novices’ Hurdle (2m4f) in which 22/1 outsider Ubak bolted up. Ignoring Dodging Bullets who broke a blood vessel, the top rated was on 142 so it was an ordinary event, but the 5 year old is clearly progressing fast having kept good company in all his 3 previous runs in this country, (25l 7th in the Neptune.) He’s a nice prospect for novice chases next season.
If there’s a Cheltenham prospect amongst the beaten horses it may be Seefood who was much better suited by decent ground and travelled well for a long way. He didn’t find much but is another who’ll be going chasing next season and was perhaps looked after here with that in mind.
The Grade 1 Maghull Novices’ Chase (2m) has, like most leading 2m races, been very predictable with the biggest SP this century 4/1 – and I’d thought there was a zero missing from Special Tiara’s SP of 28/1 as the tapes went up. Even allowing for my fancy Baily Green pulling a shoe off early on and Overturn running below form, (like many of the McCain horses), it took some believing that Special Tiara could win this. He deserves a chance at Punchestown to show it wasn’t a fluke, but it may just be a classic end of season result.
The other Grade 1, the 3m Liverpool Hurdle, brought a semblance of rationality back to proceedings with World Hurdle winner Solwhit following up in great style. I’d been sceptical about his staying in a truly run race but he clearly does and having apparently come on for the run at the Festival, he deserves to be rated a bit better here. He’ll hopefully head for Punchestown and a clash with Quevega. He’ll be 10 next year and so 7/1 to retain the World Hurdle doesn’t look tempting, with only Moscow Flyer having won a Championship event at a double figured age this century.
Battle Group had been an impressive winner of the staying handicap hurdle on Thursday and, shrewdly turned out again on Saturday by Kevin Bishop, he bolted up off the same mark (131) in the 3m1f handicap chase. Much is made of how horses can improve hugely for a switch from a small trainer to a big yard – this showed that it can work the other way round. Sometimes it’s simply a change of scenery and training method that works the oracle.
Cockney Sparrow’s 2nd to L’Unqiue here in December had been well advertised on the opening day and, bar a blip at 1/6, she’d been unbeaten since. With all the allowances she got in here off 124 in the conditionals and amateurs handicap hurdle (extended 2m) even before the rider’s claim was factored in. She looks the right type for the Scottish Champion Hurdle or the Swinton, but might be kept for the flat.
The Aintree Champion Bumper (2m1f) tends to throw up good sorts (The New One beat My Tent Or Yours last year) but it’s often the sort of race where it’s hard to know which are the ones to take out of it. Emma Lavelle’s yard had been horribly out of form when Killyglass was only 5th in what is often one of the strongest bumpers of the season at Newbury in February. He turned round the form with Vago Collonges and Caledonia who finished 2nd and 3rd in both races. Caledonia had only been 10th to Briar Hill at Cheltenham (beaten 21l there and 3¾l here) so we shouldn’t get carried away with the form yet. The placed horses here certainly paid a compliment to the easy winner of that Newbury race Oscar Rock.