To the casual observer, the fences on the Grand National course at Aintree may appear as formidable as ever but, in terms of construction, they are considerably less robust, and more forgiving, than was once the case. The National still range in height from 4’6” to 5’2” but, in most cases, are no longer supported by a rigid, timber frame, but rather by an inner core of pliable, plastic birch, 18” in height. The inner core of the fences known as Westhead, Booth and The Chair, all of which are open ditches, is still composed of traditional, real birch but, even so, they are more flexible and less hazardous to horses who fail to jump them cleanly.
While betting firms have got you covered for horse racing tips for every race going, what the Grand National fences are covered in, is a story in its own right! The National fences are still covered with distinctive Norway, or Sitka, Spruce, to a minimum depth of 14”. Nevertheless, the height of the orange-painted toe board, situated at the base of each fence on the take-off side to provide a clear ground line for horse and jockey, has also been increased to 14”. Likewise, solid timber guard rails – one of which ended the career of Arkle, probably the greatest steeplechaser in history – have long been replaced with padded PVC foam alternatives. The principal function of the guard rail is to keep the spruce apron of the fence in place but, at Aintree, guard rails were typically set very low on the ‘belly’ of the fences such that, at certain obstacles, horses could see into the ditch beyond, with unpredictable results. Raising the guard rails, to approximately one-third of the way up the fence, has improved visibility and safety in that respect.
It can, and has been, argued that removing the solid timber core of the National fences allows horses to jump lower – say 3’ as opposed to 3’6” – and faster, than before, thereby increasing the risk of injury if they do fall. Opinions differ as to whether horses that run in the Grand National consciously realise that they can ‘get away with’ hitting the top of the more forgiving fences, but jockeys certainly do. However, any danger of jockeys, as one veteran trainer put it, ‘winging round’ the National course has been alleviated, in part, by routinely watering to produce going no faster than ‘good to soft’ and that fact has been reflected in recent winning times. Indeed, with no fatalities in the Grand National since 2012, it is difficult to argue that the modifications to the fences have not improved the world famous steeplechase.