Are The Grand National Fences Safer Now Than They Used to Be?

With Cheltenham underway as we type, there is not long now until the most famous event of the racing year under either code, with the 2023 edition of the Grand National now firmly on the horizon. In terms of betting turnover and newspaper column inches, the Aintree spectacular puts everything else in the shade, with the combination of the marathon trip and famous fences continuing to capture the imagination of the public.

The world’s most famous jumps race is however also one of the most controversial in the sport, with animal rights activists, and those against horse racing in general, continuing to protest against the event. The reason for such complaints is the very feature which makes the race stand out from the crowd – those famous fences, and to a lesser extent the gruelling distance. The argument is clear -that the magnitude of the jumping challenge is simply unfair on the horses.

Such negative publicity is clearly detrimental to the sport, but in fairness to the Grand National organisers, they have acknowledged such concerns for some time. Indeed, 10 years ago, ahead of the 2013 edition of the race, significant changes were made to the fences, in an effort to make the race safer for all concerned. Key alterations included:

  • The solid wooden cores of many of the fences were replaced by a far more flexible plastic-like material.
  • A reduction in the height of many obstacles.
  • Landing areas have been levelled off, creating less disparity between the take-off and landing sides of the National fences.
  • Fences are now topped with between 14 and 16 inches of spruce which can easily be knocked off by the runners.

Have the Changes Made a Difference?

A decade on from the debut of the new fences, now seems an opportune time to assess the impact of the changes on the overall safety of the race. For purposes of comparison, we examined the numbers of fallers and fatalities in the race in the nine editions between 2004 and 2012, and the nine renewals since the changes were made (there was no race in 2020 due to the pandemic).

Note that, in order to account for all runners who failed to finish the race due to a jumping error, our fallers category also includes those horses who were brought down or unseated their rider.

Year Ran Runners Finishers Fallers Fatalities
2004 39 11 18 0
2005 40 21 11 0
2006 40 9 17 1
2007 40 12 14 0
2008 40 15 19 1
2009 40 17 16 1
2010 40 14 18 0
2011 40 19 16 2
2012 40 15 20 2
2013 40 17 8 0
2014 40 18 14 0
2015 39 19 11 0
2016 39 16 11 0
2017 40 19 8 0
2018 38 12 13 0
2019 40 19 7 1
2020 No Race
2021 40 15 9 1
2022 40 15 14 2

A glance at the above table suggests that the changes have had a positive impact, both in terms of the number of finishers and fallers in the race, but a clearer picture is obtained by comparing the average number of finishers, fallers, and fatalities in the nine years before the alterations, with the figures for the nine years after the changes.

Before / After Avg Finishers Avg Fallers Avg Fatalities
Before Changes 14.78 16.56 0.78
After Changes 16.67 10.56 0.44

Overall, it is hard to argue that the changes made have not at least gone some way towards achieving the safety objectives. The average number of finishers is up by almost two per race, whilst the number of fallers has decreased by an impressive six horses per race. On the downside, the fatality rate has not improved quite so much as may have been hoped.

All went well for the first six years after the changes, with all 236 runners making it home safe and sound. The past four years have however seen a return to pre-alteration levels. An overall fatality rate of 0.44 compared to 0.78 per race is still encouraging, but a larger sample size may be needed before any definite conclusions are drawn.

Still More Dangerous Than A Normal Jumps Race

One interesting area of comparison is to see how the Grand National measures up against jumps racing as a whole. Between 2018 and 2020, the overall fatality rate across all jumps races ranged from 0.37% of runners to 0.44%. In contrast, a total of 11 fatalities across the 715 runners in our sample equates to 1.54%. Since 2013 the figures stand at four fatalities from 356 runners or 1.12%. Overall, the results suggest that, whilst progress has been made, further improvements may be required to bring the Grand National into line with the sport as a whole.

Of course, much as many in the modern world would like to try, risk and danger cannot be removed from life. The counter argument to that as far as the Grand National goes is that for a jockey, or indeed any human, to knowingly accept a risk is one thing, but for a horse to be put in a dangerous position for our entertainment is quite another.

Who knows how horse racing in general and the Grand National in particular will be viewed in the years, decades or perhaps centuries to come? The use of the whip has been restricted more and more, whilst anti-racing sentiment seems stronger, if not necessarily more widespread. We suspect the National will be around for many years yet but further changes to those famous fences cannot be ruled out.