The racing world breathed a collective sigh of relief on Saturday afternoon as the John Smith’s Grand National returned to the news for the right reasons.
The Aintree spectacular came under heavy fire after the death of two horses in last year’s renewal, including Cheltenham Gold Cup hero Synchronised.
Inevitably, intensive discussions between Aintree officials, the British Horseracing Authority and animal welfare organisations including the RSPCA began, and it was announced earlier this year that significant changes would be made to the world’s most famous steeplechase.
The start would be moved further away from the stands to ensure a more relaxed environment and, more significantly, each of the formidable obstacles would be entirely reconstructed, replacing the traditional timber stakes with more forgiving plastic cores.
As a nation held its breath, it was soon evident the changes were having a positive effect, with the entire field still in contention up to the Canal Turn (fence eight) for the first time in 166 runnings.
Thirty-three of the 40 starters made it around the first circuit, 17 horses completed the race and only two horses officially fell, with 14 pulled up, six unseating their riders and one horse refusing at the final obstacle.
The best news of all came shortly after 66-1 shot Auroras Encore had passed the post in front – all of the runners had returned safe and sound.
Aintree director John Baker summed up the general mood, saying: “The new construction of the fences appeared to play a significant part in the spectacle and we also need to recognise the part the jockeys have played right from the off. British racing should be tremendously proud of its contribution today. As ever, we will review every aspect of today’s race. We will not stand still here at Aintree.”
Paul Bittar, chief executive of the British Horseracing Authority, said: “Every running of the Grand National is hugely important for British racing in terms of both the image and economics of the sport, but few will have had as much resting on their outcome as the 2013 race. The level of scrutiny and pressure the racecourse and the participants were placed under was not warranted but there nonetheless, and as a result all involved deserve great credit for their contribution to a very positive outcome.
“However, one incident-free running of the race gives us no sense of complacency. 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 the sport.”
Auroras Encore was a first Yorkshire-trained National winner since Merryman II in 1960, and trainer Sue Smith became only the third female to train the winner in history, following on from Jenny Pitman and Venetia Williams.