Grand National changes are nothing new. Horse racing, like all sports, is ever-evolving, and that includes the biggest race in the world.

Given the pressure the sport is under from animal welfare groups, The Jockey Club announced a series of changes, all of which will be implemented for the upcoming Grand National 2024.

Since then, there has been much debate, largely centering around whether these changes would actually have the desired impact, which is to further the overall welfare of the horses involved in the race.

Some critics, trainers, and jockeys have fundamentally disagreed with the proposed changes, suggesting that it will only increase the speed of the race, potentially causing even more harm.

Others have been more positive, acknowledging that changes must be made to ensure that all runners return home safe and sound.

So, what exactly are the Grand National changes that will be implemented on April 11th, 2024?

Reduction Of Field Size

Maximum number of runners down from 40 to 34

This is certainly the biggest change to the race, which has historically, or at least since 1984, had a maximum of 40 runners and riders.

Now reduced to just 34, the decision follows independent research and the Jockey Club’s own internal analysis of jump races, which directly ties the risk of falling to the number of runners in a race and the risk of falling.

On paper at least, that makes sense. A quick look at the 2023 race and from the 40 runners that started, only 17 finished the race.

Of the remaining 23, nine unseated their rider, seven pulled up, one was brought down, and five fell.

Statistically, that is one in eight falling during the race. Of those five, Hill Sixteen went down at the first and, unfortunately, was a fatality.

However, this particular race was marred by protestors, who disrupted the event and delayed it by nearly 15 minutes.

There was a huge amount of confusion for all involved as the police tried to remove the protestors from the course. As a result, Hill Sixteen’s trainer, Sandy Thomson, claimed that his horse became “hyper” because of the protests, which led to him not taking off at the first fence.

It will be interesting to see if a lower number of runners leads to a lower number of fallers.

Race Time Changed To 4pm

The start time of the Grand National has undergone numerous changes over the years.

Historically, it used to start at 3pm but that was when most of the public didn’t work on a Saturday!

From 1999 to 2005, the race started at 3.45pm before the time changed to 4.10pm…and then to 4.15pm the following year.

It stayed like that until 2016 when it was pushed out again to 5.15pm. Cynics may suggest that was simply to increase the time fans had to put a bet on, but in reality, it was to increase viewership as more people were at home at that time.

Now, we’re moving back to 4pm with Sulekha Varma, The Jockey Club’s Clerk of the Course, saying “This was a decision we took after a number of participants and other racing stakeholders raised concerns about the long build-up to the race throughout the day and heightened tension as a result.

“These were not issues which had been identified as a problem when the race was previously staged at 3.45pm and 4.15pm.

“Bringing forward the start time of the Randox Grand National by 75 minutes to 4pm will also help us to maintain optimal jumping ground, as warm or breezy conditions can dry out the racing surface.

Essentially, the longer the wait, the longer the ground has to dry out more, the faster the race, the more danger it presents.

Moving The First Fence

The first fence will be moved 60 yards closer to the start and a standing start – as opposed to allowing the horses to run – for all races over the National fences.

The idea behind this change is to reduce the speed at which horses go over the first fence.

Insights and analysis shows an increase in speed on average as the horses approach the first fence over the past 10 years.

The hope is that by reducing both the field size and the speed, all horses will make it safely over the first.

Pre-Race parade

It looks like the days of watching the Grand National runners lap the parade ring before the race are being put on hold.

Personally, while it is great to see the horses and have the commentators chime in about their chances, it can also get very crowded in there.

Add in owners, trainers, and jockeys, and it’s literally a jostle for standing space.

With the aim of creating the best possible environment for the horses, they will now be released at the end of the horse walk.

From there, they can canter in front of the grandstands, which will give them time and space to prepare for their race in their own time.

Running Rail Changes For Loose Horses

As we recently saw in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham and in numerous previous Grand Nationals, loose horses can cause a lot of trouble.

Altered running rails on the inside of the course will be made to prevent riderless horses from going too far into the race.

This helps with the early capture of loose horses.

Fence Height Reduction & Alterations

The 11th fence will be reduced in height by two inches, from 5ft to 4ft 10in.

With the addition of some levelling off on the landing side, this will make fence 11 safer for the horses jumping it.

Couple that with the addition of softer foam and rubber toe boards at the base of the jumping side of each fence and this should make it safer all-round for the horses.

There will also be more pop-up irrigation to water the course to prevent it from drying out.

Handicap Changes

The minimum handicap rating for horses will increase to 130 from 125.

We all know that the Grand National is a notoriously difficult race so on paper, increasing the handicap is a good idea.

However, in 2023 Born By The Sea was the last qualifier on an OR of 143 and in 2022 the last two replacements, School Boy Hours and Romain De Senam were 142.

With the reduced field in 2024, it is unlikely that any horse under an official rating of 145 will make the cut.

So, it is unknown what purpose the changes to the handicap rating serve other than to bring it in line with Grade 1 races, which are also 130.

Review Panel

One of the last Grand National changes due to take effect in 2024 is the introduction of a review panel.

Their job will be to assess every runner to determine suitability to run in the race.

Particular emphasis will be placed on horses with jumping errors in 50 percent or more of their most recent eight races.

Following the scrutiny, should the panel have concerns, then the horse will not be allowed to run.

Conclusion of Grand National Changes

So there you have all of the changes that will come into effect as of the Grand National 2024.

While some make sense, others see this as the demise of a once great race. Chris Cook at the Racing Post wrote a great article about the plans and highlighted one interesting aspect which is that a reduction in the field size will only lead to greater dominance of the super trainer.

He said: “The new National will be significantly easier to dominate for the super-trainers whose stable strength has been allowed to spiral unchecked.

“The runners we’re losing, the lowest-rated ones, so often provide the human interest angles, precisely because they don’t represent people who’ve already won everything.”

And he’s not wrong. While I’m thrilled for Willie Mullins’ success at Cheltenham, is it really fair if one trainer has the first five home in a race?

Even with the entries for 2024, Gordon Elliott has 10 in the first 34, with Mullins on nine. Between them, they train more than half the qualified field.

That’s not their fault. They are quite entitled to enter their horses, particularly as they come from a lot of different owners who all want a chance to win a National.

But once you make such significant Grand National changes, it’s very hard to go back.

Let’s just hope that by evolving the race, The Jockey Club doesn’t unintentionally ruin it in the process.

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