Aintree will excite crowds despite 'inevitable' changes

By Cornelius LysaghtBBC horse racing correspondent
Ballabriggs, ridden by Jason Maguire, won the "infamous" 2011 Grand National

Hold onto your hats for the return to Aintree of racing over its big and increasingly controversial obstacles.

For the first time since the storm that accompanied Ballabriggs' and Jason Maguire's 2011 Grand National victory, Becher's Brook, The Chair and the Canal Turn are back on the sporting radar.

The Betfred-backed Becher and Grand Sefton Chases, both staged over the famous fences, provide the first stern test of alterations carried out since the April race.

Three of the jumps have been modified, including the iconic Becher's, at which two horses, including 50-1 outsider Dooney's Gate, lost their lives.

Television images following those deaths, a whip ban for Maguire and chaotic scenes in the immediate aftermath as exhausted runners were cooled down with buckets of water led to a clamour of criticism.

Add into the mix that the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) was wrong-footed, not defending its corner until much too late, and the race became amongst Aintree's most infamous.

Ironically, it should have been one of its most celebrated with Ballabriggs' victory being a first Grand National success for trainer Donald McCain, son of the great Ginger.

McCain senior, who died in September, rued the changes to the track brought in by the BHA's post-race review, but they were probably inevitable.

The drops on the landing side of the first fence jumped in the Grand National (17th on the second circuit) and Becher's Brook (6th and 22nd) have been reduced.

And the height of the troublesome fourth (20th, second time around) has been cut.

Additionally, only better and older horses, and more qualified jockeys, will in future be allowed to line-up, though the strategy of completely bypassing fences to avoid stricken horses or riders - all too visual on television - remains.

Officials at Aintreeexternal-link have said they wanted to keep the "unique challenge" of the race and its "enduring appeal" while making conditions as safe as they can be.

The problem for them, and for jump-racing, is that there is no way the Grand National can be made entirely risk-free, and, actually, few would want it like that anyway.

Brave horses and jockeys living on the edge is what attracts millions around the world to hone in on north Liverpool every April.

That is why it is with a combination of excitement and nerves jangling loudly that I and others re-assemble at Aintree - no-one has any idea what lies just around the corner.

As for the Becher Chase, the Paul Nicholls-trained Niche Market, fifth behind Ballabriggs, coped well with the fences, and will keep galloping when others have cried enough.

* Saturday also sees the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown over two miles, with the field headed by 2011 Queen Mother Champion Chase winner Sizing Europe.