'The ideas for change need to be seen as part of the long-term evolution of the course' ON LOCATION Steve Dennis visits Aintree in the build-up to the National to investigate the alterations made to the track after last year's race.
THE sight of it never fails to evoke a sense of awe. Here, set down among a tangle of busy roads and an uninspiring jumble of shops and houses in one of Liverpool's less photogenic suburbs, is one of the wonders of the racing world.
Aintree, this greenest of oases in the middle of a tired grey landscape, is coming to life again. The fences are being built, the new Sundew bar awaits its first thirsty racegoer, temporary structures are springing up amid a sea of fluorescent jackets, hundreds of miles of cabling are being unwound and secured in place - much as happens every year.
This year, though, the Grand National has been subject to alteration. Modifications have been made to the course, to the post-race landscape. What we see this year will be different from previous years, but not even the most eagle-eyed spectators will notice the almost subliminal changes that have been made to the race itself.
"It'll still look like the Grand National," says Julian Thick, Aintree's managing director, gazing out across his empire. He says it twice, for emphasis.
"Television viewers will find it very hard to spot the changes, because they're all a matter of degree. We've always been very conscious that the race has a unique character, is a unique test. While we're keen to be progressive where aspects of safety and welfare are concerned, we were just as keen not to lose the essential character of the race, which is precious."
Last year, a perfect storm of imperfections hit Aintree on National day. Two horses, Dooneys Gate and Ornais, were killed in falls. In the immediate aftermath of the race the winner Ballabriggs appeared overcome by the exertion and unseasonably hot weather, was dismounted by jockey Jason Maguire and doused with buckets of water as though to avert his imminent collapse.
It looked panicky and off the cuff, although it later transpired that lack of communication rather than lack of foresight was to blame. The fallout fell over Aintree like a dark cloud, the vast majority of it overemotional and rooted in ignorance. The net result is a nip here, a tuck there, but the world's greatest race still wears the same face.
"The ideas for change, and the subsequent changes, need to be seen as part of the long-term evolution of the Grand National course," says Thick. "The presentation of the fences has changed significantly over time and this is just the latest stage. But rather than changing the actual fences, we've concentrated our efforts largely on the landing areas of two fences.
"We didn't feel that we had to make changes for the sake of it. We only wanted to make changes if we thought they would be a progressive step safety-wise.
"Andrew [Tulloch, clerk of the course], a BHA team and me did a huge amount of analysis, going back over 20 years, and one of the things that came up was the relatively high percentage of falls that took place over the first six fences.
"Modifications have been made in four areas. The fourth fence has been trimmed by two inches, the landing area of the first fence has been levelled, the landing area of the sixth fence [Becher's] has been raised by four or five inches, and the size of the orange toe-boards has been increased on every fence."
It is hardly a drastic overhaul, nor yet the diminishing to a 'glorified hurdle race' that many observers squawked about when the modifications were announced. Down the course, Thick's assertion that it'll still look like the National rings true.
At Becher's, the only sign of work is a line in the grass where new turf was laid to reduce the drop, filling in the area that sloped down to the brook itself. Horses will no longer land on sloping ground, no longer have to make their first move after landing an upward one. Thick stands on the rubber mats covering the brook, spruce branches above his head, the height and presence of the fence itself unchanged.
"The profile of Becher's has been retained," adds Thick. "There is still a bigger drop on the inside than the outside because we want horses to spread out across the fence."
Back at the fourth, only a watchmaker with a particularly assiduous attention to detail would recognise that this fence has had two inches lopped off its height, while down at the first fence, which has yet to be dressed in spruce branches, only the same shadowy line in the turf as at Becher's indicates that remedial work has taken place on two 'dips' on the landing side. The wider toe-boards give the horses a better line of sight as they approach each fence.
This is still the first fence, although during the consultation process considerations were made in regard to installing another fence between here and the start, raising the number of fences jumped to 32.
"We probably had around 30-40 suggestions we looked at, received from the general public as well as from trainer groups, jockey groups etc," says Thick.
"We looked at the first fence. We considered repositioning it, also looked at whether there should be another fence added to reduce the distance to the first obstacle.
"However, the position of the Melling Road and the relative topography of the track made it difficult to find a solution that we thought would be a definite improvement. Horses reach a high cruising speed very quickly and we thought there'd be a danger we'd still get the usual problems associated with the first fence at any new fence."
THE first fence is still the first fence and the last fence is still the last, but what happens after that represents the most recognisable change to Aintree routine. At the end of the straight, leading off the racecourse on the way to the stabling complex, is a new washdown area where previously there was a vacant lot.
A large, roofed area carpeted with what looks like Polytrack, this is where every horse coming off the track in every race - except for the first four home - will go to be washed down with one of the numerous hosepipes attached to the surrounding fencing. This enables stable staff to take horses away from the bustle of the crowds to a more relaxed environment, and allows them easy access to the racecourse stables.
The washdown area is also equipped with 'misting machines' - basically fans that can blow a cooling spray - that are used in eventing and at the Olympics, which will be used here should the weather be as warm as last year. If conditions are cooler they will not be in operation.
"There will also be additional teams of people with considerable experience of horses on the spot," says Tulloch. "Obviously stable staff know exactly what they're doing, but this will simply mean there are a lot more hands available at the end of a race.
"We'll also have people armed with fully portable water-carriers with a hose and spray attachment. It'll be easier to direct the spray rather than throwing buckets of water, all just a question of refining the measures we already have in place.
"If deemed necessary we can also cancel the pre-race parade or shorten it, and the other thing people might notice is that photographers will be kept off the racing surface before, during and after the race. The fewer people out among the horses, the better it'll be for everyone's safety."
Changes to race conditions - no six-year-olds, no jockeys with fewer than 15 winners under location in ... Aintree rules (including ten in chases), no horses who haven't finished fourth or better over three miles - have also finessed the Grand National entry, and Thick is pleased with the potential cast-list despite the possibility of a smaller-than-maximum field.
"I keep updating my list," he grins.
AINTREE "The quality is very high this year, what's happened is that the ones at the top of the handicap have stayed in, have been aimed at the race.
"If there are a couple less than 40 on the day it would make it no less of a spectacle. Who do I like? I think the Irish are due a winner - I quite fancy Treacle."
Thick, Tulloch and everyone concerned are aware that, given the events of 12 months ago, Saturday's great race will come under greater scrutiny than ever before. To that end, the BBC is to broadcast throughout its three-day coverage segments devoted to going behind the scenes to examine the safety and welfare measures and illustrate how they will be implemented.
"We're used to the spotlight being on Aintree," says Thick. "It's racing's biggest day."
By the time racing's biggest day dawns, the man mending the stairs by the racecourse reception will have finished his job, everyone will have finished their preparation, all will be in place for Aintree to renew its covenant with its public on a day that will hopefully bring uplifting stories of valour and glory, of personal redemption and collective passion.
Changes have been made; this year is not the same as last year. But it'll still look like the Grand National, one of the wonders of the racing world.
Main picture: Becher's, where horses no longer land on sloping ground; top right, the new washdown area; centre right, the first fence, where remedial work has taken place on 'dips' on the landing side; below right, spruce yet to be dressed on a fence