No need to ring the Grand National accident helpline

NATIONAL MANIA -- jockey Ryan Mania aboard the 66/1 Grand National winner, Auroras Encore. (PHOTO BY: David Davies/PA Wire).
NATIONAL MANIA -- jockey Ryan Mania aboard the 66/1 Grand National winner, Auroras Encore. (PHOTO BY: David Davies/PA Wire).
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EVEN if you didn’t back the 66/1 winner, AURORAS ENCORE, (and let’s face it, not many did!), the 2013 Grand National proved to be a landmark occasion for the great race. Our resident expert RICHARD SILVERWOOD looks back on why the Aintree spectacular is entering a new era.

WATCH At The Races, or even Sky Sports, for long enough and you can’t help but be bombarded by the same old adverts and their accompanying, annoying jingles.

Top of the pops is the one that crucifies Marvin Gaye’s 1969 Tamla Motown classic, ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’.

“Heard it through the grapevine, National Accident Helpline,” is how the injury-claims management company have re-worded it.

Quite how they gained permission is a mystery to be investigated another day. But last Saturday morning, the ditty resonated with all racing followers in a way National Accident could not have envisaged. For we contemplated the prospect of crying for help if the National, the Grand National, was blighted for the third year running by accidents or even fatalities.

The pressure had intensified on the opening two days of Aintree’s marvellous meeting when a couple of horses died after tackling the famous National fences. BATTLEFRONT suffered a heart attack after being pulled up in the Foxhunters’ Chase and then LITTLE JOSH broke a shoulder in a fall during the Topham Chase.

The critics were sharpening their knives. Twitter vitriol against the race was overflowing.

ITV’s ‘This Morning’ programme conducted a discussion on whether the National should be banned. While the BBC scheduled a debate show the morning after the race (no doubt expecting there to have been carnage), asking if National Hunt racing as a whole should be banned.

Within racing, emotions were tipped upside down to the point where it didn’t really matter who won the 2013 National. Instead the race badly needed all 40 runners to return safe and sound. A positive outcome. Happy headlines.

Ten minutes after starter Hugh Buckley had lifted the tapes, the outpouring of relief was palpable.

Only two fallers, not one injury and a race that suggested the changes to the fences, to the ground and to the start, all made by the course and by the authorities to improve safety, had worked a treat.

But that wasn’t all. I wrote last week how the National could only survive with the backing of public opinion.

How pleasing then that the crowds again flocked to the atmospheric Merseyside track and that Channel 4’s first year of TV coverage attracted almost nine million viewers -- an incredible figure for a network more used to no more than a million snuggling up to Come Dine With Me.

Also, how poignant it was that one of the biggest cheers of the afternoon in the Aintree sun came when the course commentator announced that all 40 horses had jumped the much-maligned Becher’s Brook without mishap.

It was proof indeed that the public had bought in to a new-look National. One where animal welfare sits alongside the tradition and romance of such a venerable institution.

Milk that in the coming years and racing need not fear the extreme views of those who seek poison minds with talk of bans.

Ignore that in the coming years and racing will be overwhelmed by the equally extreme views of those who insist change is bad.

It was extremely encouraging this week to read the views of BHA chief Paul Bittar, who refused to join in the general glee and gloating that turned the mood, post-National, from satisfaction to celebration.

“One incident-free running of the race gives us no sense of complacency,” said Bittar. “We will continue to demonstrate our unceasing commitment to horse welfare and to articulate our strong record so that the race’s reputation -- and that of the sport in general -- is not held hostage to fortune by those with nothing invested in our sport.”

Bittar goes on to describe the National as “our biggest shop-window to the sport”. But equally, it is a one-off event that bears little resemblance to the day-to-day, bread-and-butter fare the sport delivers.

Yes, racing must not be held hostage to fortune. But equally, it must not be held to ransom by the Grand National and must not be afraid to embrace more change to protect the sport against self-inflicted damage.

In his ‘Racing Post’ column this week, Lee Mottershead writes that “if the Grand National is to retain its enormous appeal, it can only be remodelled so far” and that “there comes a time when the custodians of our greatest jewel must stand firm with conviction in their own product and say: no further, no more”.

Well actually, no, Lee. The opposite is the case. Life and society are constantly evolving, constantly progressing. Therefore the Grand National must always evolve and progress too, in line with all that the general public finds acceptable.

As recently as 25 years ago, it would have been unthinkable to fill in most of Becher’s Brook. Had the current hierarchies failed to react to the problems of recent years, the National would be heading for a fall as painful as that of Captain Becher himself.

Sadly, odds considerably shorter than the 66/1 about last Saturday’s winner, AURORAS ENCORE, can be found on another equine fatality in the future, which could well lead to the removal or rebranding of drop-fences, such as Becher’s, and the reduction of the number of runners.

Thankfully, this year’s renewal has created the template for meeting such challenges. It heralded a new era for the Grand National. It suggested that the BHA and Aintree are capable of guiding the direction of the race with authoritative commonsense. And above all, it suggested the public are more than comfortable with that.