Obstacle Illusions: Grand National Fences

Obstacle Illusions: Grand National Fences 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.

Graham Lee

Graham Lee Nowadays, 42-year-old Irishman is known exclusively as a Flat jockey. Indeed, at the time of writing, he lies thirty-ninth in the Stobart Flat Jockeys’ Championship with 19 winners. However, in his earlier days, Lee was a highly successful National Hunt jockey, riding over 1,000 winners and famously winning the Grand National on Amberleigh House, trained by Donald “Ginger” McCain, in 2004.

 

In fact, Lee rode in the National eight times between 2003 and 2011, missing out just once, in 2008, when he gave up the ride on Idle Talk, trained by Donald McCain Jnr., after failing to recover sufficiently from a fractured jaw sustained in February that year. At the time, Lee said, “I’m going to sit tight, but it’s going to kill me that I’m missing it.”

 

Lee rode Amberleigh House in four successive Nationals, finishing third to Monty’s Pass in 2003, winning in 2004, finishing tenth behind Hedgehunter in 2005 and pulling up at the fence before Becher’s Brook on the second circuit in 2006. Lee fondly remembered his National winner, saying, “He was very small for an Aintree horse, but he loved the place. He was only 15.2 hands, but would grow a hand for just seeing an Aintree fence. He never made a single mistake in the National.”

 

Indeed, in four subsequent Nationals, Lee completed the course just once more, on Big Fella Thanks, trained by Ferdy Murphy, who finished seventh behind Ballabriggs in 2011 on his last ride in the race. Lee switched to Flat racing in 2012, citing weight issues – in his case, struggling to keep weight on, rather than take it off – as his reason for doing so.

Grand National Trends

Grand National Trends Despite changes to the distance, fences, entry conditions and handicap over the years, the Grand National remains a formidable test for horse and rider. The prospect of a maximum field of 40 runners tackling 4 miles 2 furlongs and 74 yards and 30 unique fences, including the infamous Becher’s Brook, should be enough to give the most ardent punter sleepless nights.

However, take heart, because although just one outright favourite and two joint favourites have won the Aintree marathon in the last 15 years, more than half the winners in that period were in the first eight in the betting. Will this trend continue with 2019 Grand National Runners. The Grand National is not, in fact, the punters’ nightmare it might first appear, especially with some useful trends to help you narrow the field.

In recent years, the Grand National weights have been compressed, with a view to improving the previously moderate record of highly weighted horses. Consequently, six of the last 15 renewals have been won by horses carrying 11st or more. Obviously, that leaves 60% of winners who carried less than 11st, but the point is that weight is no longer as pertinent as it once was.

In terms of age, 8-year-olds have won three out of the last four Grand Nationals, but 12 of the last 15 renewals have been won by horses aged 9 years or older. Bogskar, in 1940, was the last 7-year-old, and Sergeant Murphy, in 1923, the last 13-year-old, to win.

As in any horse race, fitness is paramount in the National. Horses are trained to peak fitness, where they remain for a while, before tapering off. Consequently, discount any Grand National runner that has been off the course for more than six weeks, or 42 days.

It probably goes without staying that stamina and jumping ability are absolute necessities in a National winner, so look for an accurate jumper, who has fallen or unseated rider no more than twice in its career, and has won at least one steeplechase over 3 miles or further. Previous experience over the National fences, even if failing to trouble the judge, is a major advantage, so focus on horses that have contested the Becher Chase, Topham Chase or the Grand National itself in the past.