AINTREE, ENGLAND, UK (RECENT) (ITN) - One of the world's toughest horse races, the Grand National, will be run at Aintree on Saturday (April 6) with more focus than ever on safety after the deaths of two horses in each of the past two runnings.
Such incidents are unlikely to bring an end to a spectacle watched by a worldwide television audience estimated at 600 million, but organisers have made changes.
New safety measures at the course in northwest England this year include modifications to fences, new catching pens for loose horses and a change to the location of the start line.
The man in charge, John Baker, believes the changes will help.
"We've moved the start further, 90 yards closer to the first fence. The reason for doing that is really to get the jockeys and the horses away from the tension. I mean you can see we've got two big stands, two big new stands and a hospitality facility and that was creating a lot of tension we feel for horses and jockeys and so we've moved the start 90 yards further, closer to the first fence.
"We're going to do things like the parade's going to be a little bit shorter, so we're trying to reduce the amount of time the jockey is on the horse as well. So again: try and reduce that tension. So hopefully by the time they get to the start they'll be a lot calmer than they have been in previous years and we'll see them hopefully get off to a nice, even and calm start," said Baker.
One of the two horses put down last year was Synchronised, ridden by champion jockey AP McCoyand trained by a former champion jockey, Jonjo O'Neill.
McCoy said before Saturday's race that such incidents remain in his thoughts, but it's part of the sport and the National is a very popular race.
"Yeah you do think about it but, you know, you've got to move on and be positive you know. In sport, in extreme sports, it can be, it can be dangerous for, for, obviously for both horse and and jockey, so that's, that's the downside of it but, you know, we, you've just got to get on with it and be positive and as I said, it is a very special race for a lot of reasons.You know 10 or 12 million people watch it (in Britain on TV) because it's a special race."
Trainer O'Neill said the horses love training and deaths are simply unfortunate.
"We're, we're in it for the reasons that it's a sport, it's a great game, horses love it. My horse last year unfortunately when he fell at Becher's (Brook), he got up and he was jumping away, his ears was pricked, he loved it like, you know. You can't say horses don't like it or don't enjoy it. He was loving it. He was just unfortunate that he fell, but it could be anywhere. It could have happened out in the field, what happened to him last year and I think the same with the other horse, the same thing, it was an accident. But these things happen unfortunately. That's sport," said O'Neill.
Not everyone agrees, however.
Animal Aid promotes itself as Britain's biggest animal rights society and says if jockeys died in theGrand National the race would be banned.
"If two humans were killed every year in the Grand National the way that horses have been dying recently, without a doubt the Grand National would be banned. In the past five years 944 horses have died on British racecourses; no jockeys have been killed in five years," said Animal Aid's Dene Stansall.
The British Horseracing Authority says that, while the number of runners has increased substantially in the past few decades, the average number of horse fatalities has decreased.
The Grand National comprises 30 fences over a course of 4 miles 3-1/2 furlongs for a maximum of 40 horses.