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How has the Grand National changed since its inception?
The claim “it’s not what it used to be” can be heard at almost every Grand National and while it’s true that there have been big changes to the famous steeplechase over the years, it remains a thrilling spectacle to be enjoyed by millions around the globe each year.
What really has changed in the years since the Grand National came into existence nearly 200 years ago?
The spruce-topped fences are what makes the Grand National stand out from almost every other chase on the planet, each one towering at no less than 4ft 6ins (with the exception of the Water Jump at 2ft 7ins).
No-one is exactly certain how much smaller the fences are when compared to decades ago, however many of them have been tweaked in recent years, none more so than the famous Becher’s Brook which has a reputation as being the most feared and notorious fence on the circuit.
When it gained its name, Becher’s Brook stood at a towering 4ft 10ins with a fall on the landing side measuring almost 8ft and a brook running underneath, however that brook was filled in thirty years ago and the landing has been modified in 1954, 1987 and most recently in 2011 with the height on the landing being between five and ten inches more than take-off.
Elsewhere, The Canal Turn no longer has a ditch in front of it although The Chair still stands as the tallest fence on the circuit at 5ft 2ins with the landing side some 6 inches higher than the take-off.
Some other fences have been lowered by a couple of inches and some landing areas levelled off, however the other big change has been the replacement of the solid cores by flexible birch or plastic.
Since the start of the Grand National in 1839, the Grand National was a marathon 4m 4f in length, however the distance was changed to 4m 2f 74 yards in 2013 with the starting line moved closer to the first fence. The main aim of this change was to move the start of the race further from the noisy grandstands and thus help the horses to settle before the big race, giving both jockeys and starter a potentially smoother opening.
At one time, topweights could be expected to carry some ridiculous weights in the race, sometimes 12st or more and up to 35lbs between them and bottomweight. All of this came to an end in 1960 when 12st became the topweight cap. Nevertheless there were still some entries running from up to 30lbs out the handicap in 1999, the year in which Bobbyjo won.
Topweight is now capped at 11st 10lb with the lowest being 10st. The weights are compressed from the top as the race bids to attract better horses and unlike other races where they are calculated off present ratings, they are framed by official senior handicapper Martin Greenwood.
Unbelievable as it may sound, some 66 horses started the Grand National in 1929 with a mere nine crossing the finish line and the limit of 40 was only introduced in 1984. Another change was made in 1999 when the 48 hour declarations were introduced along with a reserves system.