With Willie Carson out of the I’m A Celebrity… jungle and the first episode of the controversial Desperate Scousewives out of the way, all eyes were on Aintree for the first races over the newly modified Grand National fences.

Following two deaths in the National this year (the first equine fatalities as a result of an actual fall in the race in eight years), an inquiry advised some safety enhancements to the world famous course.  Toe boards have been made more prominent, the fourth fence has been lowered and Becher’s Brook’s drop has been reduced.

Such changes have been met with hostility however, with the likes of Ruby Walsh and John Francome concerned about the move. Yesterday morning on Channel 4’s The Morning Line, Francome said that  the fences ought to be made ‘bigger, not smaller’, worried that speed and not size is the main culprit behind equine injury rates.

The Betfred Becher Chase, a renowned trial for the Grand National itself, was the first race to be run over the fences. Deservedly, West End Rocker, trained by Alan King, ran out an impressive winner. Having been brought down at Becher’s Brook in the National in April through no fault of his own, the gelding earned quotes as low as 14/1 to gain revenge in next year’s race. Credit must go to his jockey Wayne Hutchinson, who kept his cool after his mount made a mistake at the first fence, allowing West End Rocker to creep back into the race in his own time. Hello Bud, who won the Becher Chase last year, was in with every chance when unseating at the Canal Turn, whilst Niche Market and Ballyvesey confirmed a liking for the fences in filling the places.

The best finish of the day came in the Grand Sefton Chase, the second race over the National course, which threw up a real thriller resembling that of the 2003 Becher Chase between Clan Royal and subsequent National hero Amberleigh House. Having looked vulnerable on the run to the last as Irish raider Linnel began to draw alongside, Stewarts House was as game as they come on the long, gruelling run in, repelling the younger horse by a neck in a ding-dong struggle to the post. Tim Vaughan’s nine year-old may well be aimed at the National, given better ground.

Visually, the famous fences looked as daunting and as breathtaking as ever, to the relief of worldwide racing fans. Although there were fallers, they were, thankfully, few and far between and all of the horses and jockeys returned unscathed. Three came to grief in the Becher, with two at Becher’s itself.  The other faller came down at that fourth fence, which has proved so tricky in the past. This may not exactly be the greatest of news for those behind the modifications, owing to the fact that these were the two fences of most concern in the first place, but any improvements to heighten the safety of our horses and jockeys must be given a chance, especially as the consensus among the racing world is a positive one.

James Muir