Grand National Fences – Which Are The Most Difficult To Jump?
The Grand National fences are known to be some of the most difficult obstacles in jump racing anywhere in the world.
From the very first race right up until today, they have continuously been debated, modified, and made safer for both horse and jockey.
Despite this, there are still 30 of them to jump for any jockey hoping to ultimately win the race. Those 30 are made up of 16 individual fences, 14 of which are jumped twice.
Like most marathon events, some are easier to take on than others. So here we will not only look at which are the most challenging but also delve a little deeper into how they’ve changed over the last ten years.
Five Most Difficult Grand National Fences
It is not just the winners of this race that become legends. Throughout the years, some of the fences have grown a reputation of their own.
Here we have a look at some of the big race’s most famous fences.
Becher’s Brook, the sixth fence on the first circuit and the 22nd the next time around in the Aintree Grand National, was named after Captain Martin Becher who famously fell there in the 1839 race.
Before it was modified in 1990, the obstacle was considered the most formidable challenge on the course. The height of the fence is 4ft 10in on take-off but as much as 6ft in on the landing side, with the ground immediately beyond the fence sloping back into the ditch, creating a V-shape void.
Many horses have perished at Becher’s over the years, and criticism of the jump peaked in 1987 when a horse died after falling there on live television.
In response to increasing pressure, the Aintree authorities made controversial changes to the course, including filling in the ditch and re-siting the right-hand outside running rail besides Becher’s.
Despite the changes, many jockeys disapproved of the softening of Becher’s, fearing it might become more dangerous as horses no longer favour the outer side of the jump.
Having undergone significant changes, the evidence suggests that Becher’s is now considerably less dangerous since 1990.
In 2004, nine horses left the course at Becher’s, but this was primarily due to congestion and interference, rather than the obstacle’s difficulty.
Nevertheless, Becher’s remains the most renowned steeplechase jump globally, with some individuals even opting to tie the knot in its presence as a mark of respect.
From this race have come many infamous stories – one of them is that of Valentine’s Brook. This is named after a horse who took part in the 1840 race.
It is alleged that the mount jumped the fence backwards, hence creating a story that would live on in Grand National folklore forever more and even have a fence named after it.
The tallest fence on the whole course gets its name from the fact that the distance judge used to sit beside it.
It stands at an impressive five foot three inches and has taken down many rides throughout the years.
If your horse gets over this, then that’s a good indication that the battle has already been won.
It’s not the biggest fence in the race, but back in 1967, it was the most treacherous. It took down, or disrupted, almost every horse in the field.
The only horse to get over it without issue was Foinavon, and he became a 100/1 winner and was renowned for being one of the bravest rides in history.
One of the most technically difficult parts of the course – this fence requires the horses and jockeys to take a sharp turn after jumping a five-foot obstacle.
A race myth is that horses who refused to jump this turn once ended up in the Leeds and Liverpool canal – thankfully, it is only a myth, though.
Make sure you look out for whichever horse clears this first on the second circuit because if they have enough stamina, they could go on to win the race.
Fence Modifications In 2013
Over time it became clear that some fences needed to be modified, which is what occurred in 2012.
Plans announced by the BHA to modify certain aspects of the 2013 Grand National renewal primarily centred around the start of the race and indeed that’s what many news publications picked up on.
There were of course, other plans announced concerning the actual fences at Aintree and in particular the Grand National Fences.
One recommendation was that Aintree and the BHA embark on a three-year research and development programme looking at alternative fence designs for the Grand National course.
This specifically focused on utilising materials other than the existing timber and protective rubber padding that make up the central frame of a fence, also known as the “core”.
Thankfully the height of the Grand National fences did not change, but prototype fences were assessed and trialled in the Becher Chase meeting in December.
Becher’s Brook underwent further levelling of the wider landing zone, but this did not change either the dimensions or the character of the fence.
Following the 2011 review, the landing area of the first fence was levelled to smooth out undulations existing in the natural terrain. This process was then extended to fences 4, 5 and 13.
Trialling The New Fences
The racing world held its breath on December 8th 2012, as the Becher Chase, run over the Grand National fences, underwent their first real test since modifications were made following the deaths of Synchronised and According To Pete in the 2012 National.
A true test, the new fences worked a treat, and with two races being run over them – Betfred Becher Chase and the Betfred ‘Goals Galore’ Grand Sefton Chase – all went well with just five falls and two unseated runners from the 25 horses that went over them.
At the time, Aintree’s north west regional director John Baker said “We were delighted with how the Grand National fences jumped today, including the trial fences, and we had some fantastic feedback from the professionals.
“So it is all systems go for the John Smith’s Grand National meeting in April.”
The jockeys too were suitably impressed with double winner Sam Twiston-Davies saying, “If there were any changes it didn’t seem obvious.”
Fellow rider Conor O’Farrell, who finished third on Swing Bill in the Becher, said: “I thought they rode brilliantly. All the fences seemed very presentable.”
The changes were small but essential, and outwardly the fences looked no different, but four of them were rebuilt with softer cores should the top spruce be knocked off during a race.
The fences with the alterations were the 13th and 14th fences; the last two jumped over any race on the National course. They now have plastic inserts.
The other two fences were open ditches, the third and the 11th, which have a traditional birch frame and are built up over that.
The First Real Grand National Test
Having come under severe scrutiny and been the subject of much debate, it was decided that the 2013 Grand National Fences would undergo some significant changes.
The fences were constructed around birch and plastic cores rather than traditional wooden stakes. To avoid them looking any different, they were constructed with an easy-fix plastic centre and, having considered feedback from the jockeys and trainers at the Becher Chase, were rolled out around the course in time for the 2013 race.
This was a big step forward for the safety of the race and not an alteration for the sake of being seen to be doing something.
It allayed the fears of those most concerned about the safety of the horses while still providing the same level of excitement for those who love their Grand National.
In all, 12 of the 16 fences on the course were rebuilt, and the starting line was also moved 90 yards closer to the first fence, further away from the spectators.
The changes were a success, with 17 runners finishing the race. All 40 runners returned safely to the stables and only fell at the modified fences.
Where The Fences Are Made
Having decided on the style of fence that would pose the least risk to the horses and jockeys, the contract to make them went to a Galway based company in Ireland.
The fences at Aintree were created with the ‘more forgiving’ internal structures, which means that the horses have less chance of injuring themselves should they crash into them as they make their way around the course.
It was most definitely a major coup for the Ballinasloe company, EasyFix which was established back in 1996 by Killimordaly native Michael Earls.
He started out by developing rubber matting for slatted sheds and since then, the business has gone worldwide.
The first shipment of the new fences, which were trialled during the recent Becher Chase at Aintree back in December, left Galway in February 2013 in what has been a major success story for the company.
The head of sales and marketing, explained that EasyFix would be supplying the internal fence structure for all of the main fences including The Chair and Becher’s Brook. The only fences they didn’t supply were the open ditches.
Schooling Over The Fences
As we know, the Grand National fences are notoriously difficult to navigate. So, in 2018, the introduction of reproduction fences was a welcome addition to trainers across the UK and Ireland.
Known as Schooling Fences, they are located at four venues and have been made available for use for the Grand National Runners.
They can be used to school horses that have been entered into any of the three races run over the Grand National fences. The races include the Foxhunters Chase, the Topham Chase, and the Grand National.
The fences are situated at David Pipe’s yard on the Devon/Somerset border, at The Jockey Club’s Lambourn Gallops, at the Malton Schooling Grounds and at the Curragh Training Grounds in Ireland and have been meticulously prepared by Aintree’s ground staff.
The schooling fences have proved useful for trainers preparing horses for any of the three races over the Grand National fences at the Grand National Festival.
They allow runners to get used to the style, height and landings, particularly if they’ve never run in the race before.
It also reduces risk as horses and jockeys are not as overwhelmed by the obstacles, having jumped them a few times before the big race itself.