Grand National to reduce field, soften fences for safety

The Grand National is implementing a series of significant changes, taking effect next year, in an effort to make the world's most famous steeplechase safer for horses and jockeys.

They include reducing the field from 40 horses -- the size since 1984 -- to 34, softening the fences by using foam and rubber toe boards, and moving the first fence closer to the start to stop horses building up too much speed.

The race will also start earlier in the day, so the course stays as soft as possible, and the horses will set off from a standing start.

Sixteen horses have died in the Grand National since the turn of the century. One horse, Hill Sixteen, was put down after a heavy fall at the first fence of this year's race, becoming the third horse to die at the three-day festival in April.

The race, which takes place over 30 fences and typically in front of 70,000 spectators at Aintree and a global TV audience, is among the biggest occasions on the British sporting calendar and is regarded as one of the most dangerous horse races in the world because of the size of the fences.

"I believe that a competitive, fair and safe Randox Grand National is one of the best ways of ensuring the sport continues to thrive for generations to come and remains an important part of Britain's culture and economy," said Nevin Truesdale, chief executive of The Jockey Club, which operates the top racecourses in Britain. "That means our sport, like many other sports have done, needs to recognize when action needs to be taken to evolve because the safety and care of horses and jockeys will always be our No. 1 priority."

The changes will be made following a review that included gathering insights from independent research papers into racehorse welfare, statistical data analysis relating to the race over many years, and after taking the views of the racing industry, the British Horseracing Authority, campaigner World Horse Welfare, jockeys and trainers.

The RSPCA, which is Britain's largest animal welfare charity, welcomed the changes and said it was pleased to see the racing authorities taking horse welfare seriously.

Ruby Walsh, a two-time Grand National-winning jockey, said the race "has to be prepared to change."

"There are lots of people who don't like change, but all sports change," Walsh said. "Soccer is not the same game it was 30 or even 15 years ago,8 and looking at the Rugby World Cup, rugby has had to evolve.

"Racing is the same in that we have to evolve to ensure the future of the sport."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.