Jockey's Journal: 'Speed the greatest threat to safe Grand National'

Jockey's Journal: 'Speed the greatest threat to safe Grand National'

YOU are a jockey and it’s Grand National Day, which means you’ve got a one in 40 chance of winning the richest and most prestigious jump race in the world? Well not really — it depends on which horse you are riding... I’d take a one in 40 chance any year!

People ask how a jockey prepares for a 4m 4f race with 30 jumps; jumps that have to be cleared at a rate of acceleration that has been increasing year-on-year.

In all the debate about the safety of the National, this is something which often gets overlooked because National Hunt horses are running faster now than ever before.

People think making the fences smaller reduces the risk of accident or injury. But when fences aren’t as tall, the race is run faster and when you fall at speed there’s a greater risk of injury.

In the aftermath of the 2012 race I recommended two changes in this column: reduce the size of the field and cut down the distance between the start and the first fence.

This would mean the race would start at a slower tempo, not the breakneck speed that often marks the beginning.
But the race is not as daunting as it sounds.

There is very little pressure on any jockey. It’s one of the few races that neither owners nor trainers tell you how to ride. You don’t talk tactics ahead of the National. Not really. As a jockey your first thought is simply to try and clear the first two fences.

If you get that far then your aim is to try and stay out of trouble and get beyond the Canal Turn. Make it that far and you’re up and running; you’re looking to find a steady rhythm; your only thought is to jump and run because the Grand National is more of a hunt than a race.

If you can keep doing that into the second circuit you could well be in with a chance of winning. There’s lots of wisdom out there about how a jockey should ride the National. The advice I follow is to track a front runner with previous experience in the race. You are also looking for the shortest possible line around the circuit, trying to cut some yards off that 4m 4f.

Before the race the weighing room is full of nervous tension. Jockeys riding long-shots do expect to be gone early and if they are standing after a fence or two then they probably expect to be gone in another fence or two.
I’ve seen jockeys who expected to fall at the first fence getting slagged between jumps by some of the other jockeys.

One horse I really fancy this year is Seabass, which was third behind Neptune Collognes and Sunnyhillboy in 2012. You’ll remember that finish when Daryl Jacob beat Richie McLernon by a wafer-thin margin.

Seabass stays well and if the going is on the slow side — which it should be — then he’s in with a great shout. To win the National you need a clever horse who can adapt well when it comes to the jumps. If a horse tries to jump too well, he’ll fall. Jump too big and you’ll wobble on landing. So I suppose the key, or certainly one of them, is riding a horse who knows how to look after himself.

The Grand National is recognised and respected globally. It’s watched in every corner of the world and is steeped in history and tradition. You can say the same for the Cheltenham Gold Cup to an extent, but I think if you asked most trainers and jockeys, the National is the one they really want to win. It’s such a challenging race and it’s so difficult to prime a horse for it; there are so many things that can go wrong, but everything has to go right for you to win it.

It’s always so tough to pinpoint who you’ll see winning it, but if I was to pick one other horse, then it has to be Ballabriggs, who has been trained specifically for this race and is a previous winner. But come Saturday evening Katie Walsh could be the first female jockey to win the National.