Grand National’s new sponsorship another sign that race is in rude health

A new sponsor with no previous involvement in racing and a long-term deal are the latest signs that the Grand National’s status has achieved a kind of stability that seemed most unlikely less than four years ago.

The famous Aintree race seemed under siege and its future in peril after the 2012 running, which ended with two equine fatalities, as had the 2011 race.

Back then, the RSPCA called for “an urgent examination” of the race and it would have taken a sponsor with a very strong stomach indeed to step in at that point and associate itself with the National. That was the context for a significant drive to reduce the risk posed by the race, with the notable consequence that the wooden stakes which had formed the core of those famous green fences were removed to be replaced with plastic birch.

Risk is never far away with horses in general, with racing in particular and still more so when 40 animals race over 30 obstacles. But the changes made in recent years really do seem to have had the desired effect, and Aintree’s efforts in the direction of safety continue.

For this year’s race, the focus has been on improvements to the irrigation system which will help to ensure that the race is never again run on the kind of fast, dry surface that helps the horses run faster and reduces the available cushion when they fall.

Past controversies were not at all off-putting to Randox Health, the race’s new sponsor, as the company deliberated the contract in recent days. So much was made clear by its founder and managing dorector, Dr Peter Fitzgerald, as he fielded questions about the deal on Tuesday. “We’re very comfortable with the Grand National and with all aspects of racing,” he said.

Perhaps having spent too much time recently with his marketing team, he added: “We’re all about wellbeing and the Jockey Club [owner of Aintree] are also about wellbeing, of the horse in particular. We have no issue with the Grand National in any regard.”

Having reportedly been set up in 1982 in a chicken shed, the Antrim-based Randox Health is now an enormous concern, selling diagnostic equipment around the world and claiming annual turnover of £92m. It employs more than 1,000 people and its president is the former environment secretary, Owen Paterson.

Even so, Randox’s profile in Britain has been low to this point. This link with the Grand National is clearly intended to rectify that as it plans to open a series of health clinics, with the social media reaction suggesting it badly needs to distinguish itself from a similarly titled purveyor of bubble baths.

Fitzgerald may not have had the race in mind when he approached the Jockey Club some time ago to discuss the potential for sponsorship, but he appeared genuinely pleased at the deal, which was concluded on Monday. “The National is the second most watched sports event on the planet,” he said. Certainly, the domestic audience should be bolstered this year by the later start time of 5.15pm.

Fitzgerald specifically denied, however, that the race’s move from Channel 4 to ITV for next year had been any part of the attraction. The Jockey Club and jump racing in general are bound to be pleased with their work, since the winter game’s other major event, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, has also recently attracted a new backer with no history of sporting sponsorship in Timico, whose deal is for four years. Randox Health is tied to the Grand National for five years, with Aintree’s John Baker talking enthusiastically about his hope that the deal would eventually extend to at least a decade.

That compares with the three years for which the departing sponsor, Crabbie’s, was involved. The deal with it was done at a time when the race had been sponsorless for four months, whereas Randox have signed up more than a year before the first race that will carry its name.

As with Timico and indeed with Crabbie’s, a critical factor in drawing them to racing has been the enthusiasm of a single senior figure. Fitzgerald described himself on Tuesday as “very into horses”. He has arranged point-to-point races in recent years at the Crumlin headquarters of his company. He owns 40 horses, most of them polo ponies, and has owned racehorses, though he demurred at suggestions that he might now buy more in the hope of winning his own prize money.

So this deal appears to be the result of a private passion. Hopefully, the spring festivals over the next two months will show that jump racing can continue to inspire those feelings, even after a winter’s action rendered pedestrian by persistent rain and heavy going everywhere. © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010