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New, improved National leaves protestors trailing 01/4/2008
Greg Wood

It may well have escaped your notice, but this is Horse Racing Awareness Week, and anyone who spends much time in betting shops may think that it is not a day too soon. The number of people feeding pound after pound into one-armed bandits these days is extraordinary, and any attempt to lure them towards the far more cerebral and rewarding challenge of racing can only be a good thing.

Animal Aid
Animal Aid
If the organisers get their way, however, the punters will move in the opposite direction. HRAW is an annual exercise by the animal rights group Animal Aid, which is designed, according to their press release, to remind punters that "when people bet, they are funding a ruthless, lethal industry." Its focus, inevitably, is Saturday's "perversely difficult" Grand National, and the group plans protests outside betting shops and a demo at the track on Thursday.

There are many in racing who view Animal Aid and their fellow travellers in the animal rights movement with a mixture of loathing and contempt. A personal view, though, is that while their opinions are diminished by bigotry and ignorance, they are honestly held. And while they will not affect the turnover on Saturday's race or impact on racing in general, the annual appearance of their "Awareness Week" before the National also shows that the sport is moving on while Animal Aid stands still.

The AA press release is practically identical to one sent out last year, and every year before that. The National, by contrast, is a completely different race to that of 20, or even 10, years ago.

Many of the changes are too subtle to be appreciated by those who want to see not just the Grand National, but all racing, Flat and jumps, banned immediately. Their combined effect, however, has been a remarkable improvement in the race's quality, removing many of the no-hopers that used to clog things up and threaten mayhem. Aintree remains a considerable challenge, but as fair a challenge as it can ever be.

In a sport often accused of inward-looking conservatism, the transformation of the National has been extraordinary, and something to celebrate. In 1999, the lowest-rated runner got in off a mark of 110. This year, it is likely to be 136 or 137. The quality of the worst horse in the race has improved by nearly two stones in a decade.

It was only in 2005 that all 40 runners carried their correct handicap weight for the first time. Three years later, you wonder if anything will ever run from out of the handicap again. Bottom weight could well be 10st 7lb, which means the top weight will be giving away just 19lb, rather than 28lb, from a top weight of 11st 12lb rather than 12 stone, that was the norm until recently.

Phil Smith, who started handicapping the race in 1999, has had a hand in the changes, though he points towards the efforts of Aintree and the National's sponsors to modernise the course, and persuade the owners of the best horses to steer them towards Liverpool.

Twenty years ago, there were plenty of jumping enthusiasts who felt an annual twinge of embarrassment about the National. Now, though, we have a new race with the same name. It is a tough, demanding handicap chase over a unique trip, but far removed from the anachronism that it once seemed destined to become. It is a race, in fact, of which we can be proud.

It is not just the National, but jumps racing as a whole that approaches this weekend in rude health. With Kauto Star due at Liverpool on Thursday and Master Minded the following day, the best Cheltenham Festival in recent memory seems likely to be followed by the best Aintree. Animal Aid can protest all they like. It does not seem to make a jot of difference.