04/04/2013 3:30PM

Grand National: Sunnyhillboy may benefit from shorter, safer course


Sunnyhillboy was beaten a nose in the Grand National over 4 1/2 miles at Aintree Racecourse in England last April, and a repeat performance may be enough for him to win this year’s Grand National on Saturday.

Sunnyhillboy, a 10-year-old, led in the run between the last fence and the finish last year only to be caught at the wire by Neptune Collonges.

Since last year, British and Aintree racing officials have made changes to the country’s most popular horse race. The distance has been shortened by about 100 yards to about 4 3/8 miles, and the start was moved away from the stands to reduce crowd noise that could affect the 40 starters. By moving the start farther into the course, officials hope that the field is not going as fast when it reaches the first fence, about 300 yards away. It is common for there to be one or two fallers at the first fence; last year, there was one.

In addition, several of the birch fences have been rebuilt with a softer core, making them more forgiving; the landing side of the famous Becher’s Brook fence, which is lower than the takeoff side, has been leveled slightly; and the ground will be watered to ensure conditions are at least good-to-soft, the preferred going for steeplechasing.

The changes are in response to two equine deaths at both the 2011 and 2012 runnings, including the loss last year of Synchronized, who won the 2012 Cheltenham Gold Cup.

While purists may bark that the race is not run the way it used to be, racing officials have come under pressure for a safer race. There has even been a call to eliminate Becher’s Brook.

The race will have its typical 40 runners and is scheduled to start at 11:15 a.m., Eastern.

As of Thursday, On His Own, a 9-year-old gelding trained by Ireland by Willie Mullins, was the 7-1 favorite. On His Own fell at Becher’s on the second circuit last year, when racing in third, and has started once this year, winning the Grade 2 Boyne Hurdle at Navan Racecourse in Ireland in February.

This season, Sunnyhillboy has been fifth and was pulled up in his two starts. Despite those setbacks, he is a 16-1 contender.

On His Own will be ridden by Ruby Walsh and will carry 154 pounds. Imperial Commander, the winner of the 2010 Cheltenham Gold Cup, carries top weight of 168 pounds and was a 14-1 shot on Thursday.

Other contenders are 9-1 Colbert Station, the mount of leading jump jockey A.P. McCoy, and Seabass (9-1) and Cappa Bleu (12-1), who were third and fourth last year.