The Jockey Club major steps on equine welfare



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Changes announced for Aintree Image: Aintree Racecourse, Rept0n1x, CC BY-SA 3.0

The horse racing company – The Jockey Club – recently announced several changes to the Randox Grand National, which takes place at the Aintree Racecourse in Liverpool, England (UK) each year, as part of the continued evolution of the famous race.

‘THE JOCKEY CLUB’ stated that these changes underline The Jockey Club’s continued focus to ensure the best possible welfare conditions for racehorses and jockeys across all its racecourses. At Aintree alone it has spent £2million on equine welfare investments.

London (UK)-based The Jockey Club is the largest commercial horse racing organization in the United Kingdom. It owns 15 of Britain’s famous racecourses, including Aintree, the 67,500-capacity Cheltenham Racecourse in England, the 130,000-capacity Epsom Downs Racecourse in Epsom, England, and both the just over 20,000-capacity New Market Rowley Mile Course in Newmarket, Suffolk, and the July Course in Newmarket, amongst other horse racing assets such as the National Stud (a United Kingdom Thoroughbred horse breeding farm located two miles from Newmarket) and the property and land management company, Jockey Club Estates (the property and land management arm of The Jockey Club Group).

The Randox Grand National is the most famous steeplechase in the world, taking place every year in April at the Aintree Racecourse in Merseyside (UK).

The 75,000-capacity Aintree Racecourse is a racecourse in Aintree, Metropolitan Borough of Sefton, Merseyside, England, bordering the City of Liverpool (UK). The racecourse is the venue for the Grand National steeplechase, which takes place annually in April over three days.

‘THE JOCKEY CLUB’ further stated that following the race each year a process is undertaken to review all aspects of the world’s most famous steeplechase. This year, The Jockey Club, supported by the industry body – the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) – has recognized the need for more substantial updates on several key areas in order to better protect the welfare of racehorses and jockeys. All updates to the race will take effect from 2024.

The evidence-based review process included gathering insights from independent research papers into racehorse welfare, statistical data analysis relating to the race over many years and canvassing the views of the racing industry, the BHA, the World Horse Welfare, and a range of other stakeholders including jockeys and trainers.

London (UK)-based the British Horseracing Authority (BHA), also known simply as the BHA, is the regulatory authority for horse racing in Great Britain. It was formed on July 31st, 2007, after the merger of the British Horseracing Board and the Horseracing Regulatory Authority.

Norwich (UK)-based the World Horse Welfare is an international charity that works to improve the lives of horses and the horse-human partnership. The charity was founded in 1927 by Ada Cole, who was inspired to act after witnessing British work horses being whipped for four miles to slaughter in Belgium.

The Jockey Club, which operates 15 of Britain’s most iconic racecourses and is the largest employer in British horseracing, reinvests profits back into the sport to ensure the future and success of racing. This year, the Aintree Racecourse, supported by the BHA, recognized its continued responsibility for the evolution of the Randox Grand National across a variety of areas to continue to improve equine welfare and safety while maintaining competitiveness.
 
Five major sets of changes will be in place from the next running of the historic race on April 13th, 2024. These are listed below along with the evidence which supports them:
 

1) Reducing the risk of incidents during the race:

  • Reducing the maximum number of runners from the current safety limit of 40 (which was introduced in 1984) to 34; and
  • Insights from the independent research papers combined with The Jockey Club’s own internal analysis of jump races evidences a direct correlation between the number of runners in a race and the risk of falling.

 

2) Reducing the opportunity for horses to build up too much speed at the start of the race:

  • Moving the first fence 60 yards closer to the start to slow the early stages of the race; and
  • Implementing a standing start that will apply to all races over the Grand National fences throughout the 2023-2024 seasons and beyond. Again, insights from the independent research papers, combined with The Jockey Club’s own analysis of the speed of the horses participating in the race, shows an increase in speed on an average as the horses approach the first fence over the past 10 years.

 

3) Creating the best possible environment for the horses:

  • Bringing forward the start time of the race to help ensure that Aintree can provide the optimal ground conditions – the ground at the course can dry out quickly on a breezy, sunny April afternoon;
  • The start time to be confirmed following continued discussions with the Independent Television (ITV), a British free-to-air public broadcast television network; and
  • The horses will no longer be led by a handler on-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.

 

4) Investing in a number of infrastructure changes to the course:

  • Alterations will be made to the alignment of running rail on the inside of the Grand National course to assist with the early capture of loose horses;
  • Reducing the height of Fence 11 by two inches (from 5ft to 4ft 10in) on takeoff side, with some ‘leveling off’ on the landing side to reduce the height of the drop;
  • Introducing foam and rubber toe boards on every fence;
  • Further investing in pop-up irrigation to allow for more effective watering of the course; and
  • Widening the walkways in the paddock.

 

5) Ensuring the horses participating is in the best condition to do so:

  • Continuing to develop the pre-race veterinary protocols, working alongside the BHA;
  • The minimum handicap rating for all horses running in the Grand National will be raised to 130. This is an increase from the current minimum rating of 125 and brings the Grand National minimum handicap rating in line with the Grade 1 races, which are also 130; and
  • The Grand National Review Panel, a group of industry experts who assess the suitability of every horse entered to run over the Grand National fences, will further enhance its procedures to closely scrutinize horses entered in the race that have made jumping errors in 50 percent or more of their last eight races, before allowing them to run.

 
The new changes follow improvements over the consecutive years in equine welfare at Aintree. In the last decade alone, The Jockey Club has spent more than £2million on horse welfare measures at the Merseyside racecourse, including modifying every fence on the Grand National course after the 2012 race, with the inner frames changed from timber frames to more forgiving flexible plastic or natural birch.

The other changes made in that period include areas being leveled off at a number of fences to reduce the drop on the landing side, including at the iconic Becher’s Brook fence, more than £400,000 spent on enhancing the watering system to ensure the safest possible racing ground and a state-of-the-art, fully equipped cooling and washdown area for horses post-race.

Nevin Truesdale, Chief Executive of The Jockey Club, said the changes to the Grand National are part of the organization’s “relentless focus on welfare. The Randox Grand National is the most iconic race in the world and one which transcends our sport. It is part of the fabric of the British sporting life alongside the likes of Wimbledon, the Football Association (FA) Cup and the Open Golf and is loved and watched by millions of people all over the world every year. 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.”

Added Truesdale, “That means our sport, like many other sports have done, needs to recognize 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.”

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 the participants.

Explaining the decision-making process, 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. One of our key areas of focus is reducing the risk of incidents during the race. We know from the research papers and internal analysis of jump races that there is a direct correlation between the number of runners and the risk of falling, unseating or being brought down. However, we also must consider that reducing the field size by too great a number could create a faster race and have an adverse impact in terms of safety. Using the information available to us and considering the experiences of participants, our conclusion is that 34 should be the maximum number of runners in the race which we hope will result in the least number of incidents.”

Maintained Julie Harrington, Chief Executive of the British Horseracing Authority (BHA), “The Grand National is the world’s greatest horse race. It has maintained that status through the years, in part, because of the developments and changes that have been made to it. These changes have enabled it to move with the times and maintain public support while also ensuring that it remains a unique, thrilling spectacle and the ultimate test of a racehorse. The package of measures which will be introduced for next year’s race seeks to strike this crucial balance, and the BHA endorses them in full.”

Put in Professor Chris Proudman, Professor of Veterinary Clinical Science at the University of Surrey, “As a veterinary professional, committed to the welfare of animals and specializing in horses, I commend the significant modifications to the Grand National. Making changes to such a famous race requires evidence and judgment. These changes will make considerable strides towards enhancing equine welfare for all the participants – it’s the right and responsible action to take.”

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