By pandering to RSPCA, Grand National risks no longer being a lottery – and losing its appeal

Runners and riders jumping the last fence in the Grand National
Runners and riders jump the last fence in the Grand National on Saturday - PA/Nigel French

As is now traditional, Grand National day started this year with the RSPCA feeding a willing, woke, left-slanted broadcasting media anti-racing rhetoric which they lapped up.

But even the RSPCA would have to concede that this year’s race is the beginning of a new era. Whether the changes that have been made are the beginning of the end of a once great race, or the start of a new optimistic future is, however, open to debate.

On the plus side, there were no injuries to the horses taking part, which is something that everyone is delighted about. And one could argue that any changes that take the wind out of the sails of the intolerant, disproportionately influential social media warriors is a good thing for the survival of the race.

But those who shout loudest on social media don’t necessarily represent ‘the public,’ and the Grand National won’t continue to be the ‘People’s race’ if the same dominant owners and trainers with multiple runners hoover it up every year.

Irrespective of what great ambassadors for the sport trainer Willie Mullins and owner JP McManus are, it is a very dangerous road for the event to travel down if the data shows that a few can push out the rest by flooding the race with their own horses.

And that is not a criticism of the fact that most of the horses in the race on Saturday were trained in Ireland. Far from it, in the past the Irish winners have been the most colourful, engaged stories because they have a great passion for the sport.

On the evidence of this year it will now be the class horses towards the top of the handicap who will win every time, because the jeopardy and randomness of the fences has by and large been removed.

I Am Maximus is not known for being a great ‘leaper’ of fences. He made a mistake at the chair that would have put paid to his chances in the past, and as Willie Mullins, his trainer pointed out, clipping fences is probably the way to win the National now, not big extravagant jumps.

In another context, that would be called hurdling, and when one looked back down the track on the second circuit on Saturday, it was not hard to see what Mullins was talking about. What was left standing of the fences was not much bigger than a French style hurdle.

Will public still do office sweepstakes with jeopardy removed?

The real danger now for the Grand National is that the public realise that it looks and feels like any run-of-the-mill, big field handicap hurdle. At that point, will they continue to do office sweepstakes, and get their friends around to watch the race on the telly?

I watched it on Saturday with a bunch of non-racing friends and their reaction varied from ‘that was a bit under whelming’ to ‘not really heroic was it.’

The other sadness is that the changes will have a knock-on effect as to what type of horses are bred. Who will want to breed the big, scopey, magnificent chasing types when as Mullins points out, bold jumping is not going to win the Grand National anymore? It’s not an exaggeration to say that the changes to the great race will have genetic consequences.

Making the Grand National more elitist will also change the wider public’s attitude to their once-a-year flutter. When the penny drops that the race is no longer a lottery that gives everyone a chance, and the romantic heart-warming stories dry up, the TV audience will start to shrink.

What the organisers of the Aintree race must also accept is, no matter how many changes they make, the RSPCA will always be there to stab them in the back when something goes wrong.

Their natural hatred of what they misguidedly see at the sport of kings is akin to the RSPB’s loathing of people who preserve the habitat on grouse moors.

Life is inherently risky. Every time someone lets their cat out to kill a few birds, it could get run over. But do the RSPCA decry that as irresponsible behaviour that leads to unnecessary suffering?

Of course not. As a political organisation, they understand it is not good business to alienate cat owners.

I had my doubts but tamer Grand National has lost none of its magic

When the Grand National was first run in 1839, the fence in front of the grandstands was a 4ft 8in stone wall which was jumped once and much of the course was run over plough.

The following year the wall was bitterly criticised in the press because not only did the first winner, Lottery, fall at it, he brought down three others including the 3-1 favourite, The Nun. Two years later it was replaced by an artificial water jump, not unlike today’s.

The water was considered too tame so the wall was reintroduced by the Aintree executive – albeit to the dismay of owners and riders. That year it was responsible for two horrendous falls and, the long and the short of it, was that it was returned to a water jump and gradually, field by field, plough became turf and step by step it became easier.

So from year one to year 176, the Grand National has always evolved, but often reactively, a few strides behind current tastes. But, one hopes, the changes to Aintree are finally now aligned with what the public want to see.

I was in two minds about the alterations made in the wake of last year’s calamitous race which was affected by animal rights protests. It looked like we were giving in to people who would never be satisfied until racing was finished and I feared we had gone too far in pandering to them. I even advocated the authorities holding their nerve and giving the race one more chance without protests.

But Saturday’s National, the first in its history in which we can safely say there were no fallers, was an easy, joyous watch and yet to the once-a-year punter whether it is 40 or 34 or 32 runners as there were on Saturday that is still a lot of horses, jumping big green fences over a long distance in a historic race.

If you had not told everyone the first fence had been moved 60 yards closer to the start most would not have noticed, the standing start was not quite standing, but it was fine, and, for their part, the jockeys used their heads and made full use of the width of the course.

Paul Townend riding I Am Maximus jumps the Chair en route to victory in the Grand National
Paul Townend on eventual winner I Am Maximus jumps the Chair during Saturday's Grand National – the first with no fallers - Getty Images/Michael Steele

I also think running the race at the earlier time of 4pm and not at the end of a long day was better for the horses, competitors and the 60,000 crowd. If a few quid less was bet on the race or a few less watched it as a result, so what?

Without the drops and the guts of the fences that were removed in 2012, and which would have stopped tanks, it may not be quite the challenge for horse and jockey it once was, but when there are 15 runners still in with a chance crossing the Melling Road for the last time, that’s terrific for punters and spectators. It might be a different race but it is not a lesser race. It is still the Grand National.

In three decades of reporting on the race for Telegraph Sport, among the worst days have been the ones when I have been the one switching the lights out in the Aintree press room having had to justify the race and fatalities. Last year was one, 2012 was another, and I no more want to have to do that than the vets on course want to put all their training into practice.

Sure, there will be Nationals in the future when it does not go quite so smoothly and a horse gets hurt but yesterday, in stark contrast from a year ago, Instagram was full of happy horses returned from Aintree being turned out in the fields on a sunny day, not updates from veterinary hospitals.

There is also a myth that there is always a great story attached to the winner which is vastly over-played. There have been many instances over the years when that has not been the case. Of course it would have been an easier story to write had Kitty’s Light, who led over the last before fading into fifth behind I Am Maximus, won but the Willie Mullins trained, JP McManus owned eight-year-old was still a great winner.

For numerous reasons racing needed a good day on Saturday and the magic of the National was that it pulled out all the stops and provided one. This was the sport saying and doing, not just saying.

As my 12-year-old daughter said after two days in Liverpool but 24 hours before the race had been run, “I can’t wait for next year already.”

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