Iconic status of reformed Grand National under threat. GETTY IMAGES

Recent reforms have brought changes to the world's most famous steeplechase, the Grand National, but it remains an emblematic race, albeit at a critical juncture.

Established in 1839 and featuring 30 challenging fences, the Grand National has always been an exciting race with memorable moments including Devon Loch's unexpected fall in 1956 and Red Rum's thrilling victory over Crisp in 1973. There have also been downsides, with five horse deaths in the last four editions.

The 2024 Grand National at Aintree will see the field reduced for the first time from 40 to 34 horses, compared to the 66 that lined up in 1929. Adjustments include a shorter distance to the first fence and a reduction in the size of the 11th fence, which is an open ditch.

"We may not be the last chance saloon, but we're getting close. Obviously the optics haven't been great in recent years but we can't apologise for what is one of racing's greatest assets," William Woodhams, CEO of the world's oldest bookmakers Fitzdares, told AFP.

The changes were made following a review of last year's race, which was delayed by animal rights protests and saw Hill Sixteen euthanised after a fall. The protesters have said they won't disrupt this weekend's event.

Despite the adjustments, including the latest after a series of changes over the years, Henry de Bromhead still sees the event as hugely significant. "It's still an iconic race. Obviously it is massive to lose a horse, nobody likes to go home with an empty box," said the 51-year-old Irishman, who has three runners this year including 2021 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Minella Indo.

"However, the authorities have definitely put a lot of work into the review and decided to make it safer which they felt they needed to do," De Bromhead told AFP.

For Woodhams, a trip to a stable would provide a valuable insight for anyone who thinks that horses are treated as disposable commodities. "They're like members of the family and you can see how much it means to those connected with the horse when, sadly, they don't make it back from the racecourse," he insisted to AFP.

Woodhams argues against any further dilution of the Grand National, warning that it risks diminishing its raison d'être or distinctiveness. "To reduce the field size or the distance any further would be an absolute disaster, for me. There's nothing like the Grand National anywhere. We should embrace its uniqueness and the one-off challenge it presents," Woodhams stressed.

Concerns have also been raised that the smaller field could give an advantage to prominent Irish trainers Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott.

"Willie and Gordon will probably make up about half of the runners on the day. That can't be good. Having said that, I don't know how you stop it, there are just more horses capable of winning the race from those yards at the moment," Woodhams told AFP. 

Woodhams emphasises that the passion of Liverpool residents for the Grand National and the spotlight it shines on the city should not be overlooked. "Don't underestimate its value to Liverpool. They are very proud to host the greatest race in the world. It's one of the few places where you can find the big guns of racing letting their hair down," he concluded, as quoted by AFP.