The Grand National fences have been altered substantially in recent years. In some cases the height has been slightly reduced, in other cases the drop on the landing side has been levelled off, and in all cases the internal construction has changed from wooden stakes to a synthetic core. These changes have been made to improve the safety of the race, and the ‘new’ fences still seem to take plenty of jumping although they are designed to be more forgiving. The look of the fences is unchanged, although old jockeys like me will always say that they seem much smaller than in our day.
(height 4ft 6in)
This is an ordinary, plain fence that over the years has accounted for a large number of fallers because of its position in the race – the full field jumps it and the jockeys tend to be going much too fast towards it. It’s important to give your horse a good, clear view of the fence, which is why everyone is keen to get a good position, but going off so fast in order to accomplish this often causes horses to over jump and crumple on landing. I never fell at the first – I remember Graham McCourt and Richard Rowe had terrible luck here – and now that the run to the first has been reduced it has caused fewer problems.
Just a straightforward plain fence, nothing out of the ordinary for Aintree.
(4ft 10in, 6ft ditch on take-off side)
This is a big fence, the first real test, and a fence that all the jockeys have on their mind before the start. There’s a big ditch on one side and a reasonable drop on the other, and it rides almost as though it’s bigger than it actually is. I’ve nearly hit the deck several times here, and it’s especially troublesome on the second circuit when the horses are more tired.
Another big, plain fence that can cause quite a few fallers. It generally rides well but, as for the previous fence, it can wipe a few out on the second circuit. In 1997, I fell here on the second circuit when going well on Smith’s Band, who very sadly did not survive.
Big fence that tends to be as straightforward as any on the racecourse. It’s always known simply as “the one before Becher’s,” as that’s what all the jockeys are thinking about when they’re approaching it!
6/22 Becher’s Brook
It’s not the fence itself but the drop that has made this the most famous fence in the world. Although the brook has been covered over and the drop levelled out to a considerable extent, it’s still the focus of attention.
I always used to track out to the right on approach if I could because the drop isn’t so high there. I was dead centre when I fell on West Tip in 1985. You feel as though you’re jumping out into space. You hang in the air for a long, eerie moment, and invariably horses peck when they land. There’s a history of horses falling here on the second circuit, leaders such as Andy Pandy and Uncle Merlin, because they’re more tired and the drop can catch them out. It’s been altered, but it’s still a fearsome fence.
7/23 The Foinavon
The Foinavon fence is named after the 1967 winner who was one of the few to escape an enormous melee here on the second circuit. It’s on a bend, which can complicate matters, and although it’s small enough horses are prone to making mistakes because it comes after the shock of the drop at Becher’s. They seem not to want to get too high at this one.
8/24 The Canal Turn
The Canal Turn is where horses have to make a 90-degree turn on the landing side. You can lose a lot of ground if you go ‘straight on’, but if you’re on the inner you can very easily be hampered and find yourself in trouble. The approved method is to swing out to the right on approach and then angle in over the jump, apexing the corner and saving ground. Needless to say, there are often fallers and unseated riders here.
9/25 Valentine’s Brook
(5ft, 5ft 6in ditch on take-off side)
Not usually a problem despite its size; if you’ve made it this far, this is where you start getting your horse into a rhythm and start keeping an eye on the loose horses around you. On the second circuit, if you’re in with a chance, this is where you start thinking about tactics and about making a race of it.
A straightforward plain fence, a relief after the last few fences.
(5ft, with 6ft ditch on take-off side)
This is a big ditch but given its position, at a point of consolidation either before going out toward the second circuit or beginning the final challenge, it seems to cause less problems than many of the fences.
(5ft, with 5ft 6in ditch on landing side)
The third-last, and the last fence before crossing the Melling Road and coming back on to the racecourse ‘proper.’ You don’t want to take off too far away because there is a small ditch on the landing side.
Ordinary plain fence, but can cause problems, notably in 1994 after it was rebuilt and thus stiffer than before. There were three or four fallers on the first circuit.
One of the smallest on the course, but given that it’s the final fence, it often seems pretty big. By the time we get here on the second circuit there’s usually plenty of spruce dressing missing, big holes that can help if you’re on the right line to take advantage of them.
15 The Chair
(5ft 2in, with a 6ft ditch on the landing side)
The Chair. The tallest fence on the circuit and the approach funnels in, making it the narrowest fence, too. It’s one everyone takes care over, especially with loose horses getting in the way. It’s very important to give your horse a clear view. Now and again a horse plants itself or ends up in the ditch, and there have been several photographs of riders coming over the fence without their horse. It’s right in front of the stands, too, so there’s plenty of noise to add to the situation.
16 The Water Jump
Never usually a problem, although now and again a horse might drop his hindlegs in the water. My grandfather fell here back in the 1920s – he was probably one of the last one’s ever to fall at it!