Aww, the Grand National. Don’t you just love it?
More than a horse race, more of a national institution. An annual sporting event that transcends sport, engaging and exciting the whole country with its enduring character and charm.
In Australia, they say the Melbourne Cup is the race that stops a nation. But as racing’s most celebrated jockey, Sir Anthony McCoy, says, the National is the race that the world stops to watch.
Whether we have a go on the sweep at work or down the pub, or whether we have a cheeky 50p each/way flutter, most of us will be involved and interested in the Crabbie’s Grand National at Aintree when the tapes go up for its new tea-time start of 5.15 on Saturday afternoon.
The figures stack up. Forty horses, 30 unique and famous fences, four-and-a-quarter miles, £1 million in prize money, 600 million TV viewers in 140 countries across the globe.
But the National’s rich tradition and history stacks up too. Since the race was first run way back in 1839, when the inaugural winner was a nine-year-old called Lottery, it has spawned a collection of stories that have made for unparalleled sporting theatre.
Who can forget the multiple pile-up in 1967 that led to Foinavon going off on his own and springing a 100/1 surprise? Or the domination in the 1970s of Red Rum, three times a winner, twice a runner-up and still the best-known horse on Earth?
Who can forget the emotional triumph on Aldaniti in 1981 of jockey Bob Champion, only months after he had recovered from cancer? Or the chaotic scenes in 1993 when the race, won by Esha Ness, had to be declared void after a false start?
Who can forget the 150th National of 1997, the year a bomb scare forced a mass evacuation of the course and the race, won by Lord Gyllene, had to be switched to the following Monday? Or the muddy madness of 2001 when relentless rain reduced the track to a quagmire and only four horses, led by Red Marauder, finished?
It’s a fair bet that most racing fans got hooked on the sport through one of these, or other, amazing Grand National tales. Guided through them on the box maybe by Frank Bough or David Coleman or Des Lynam, not to mention, of course, Peter O’Sullevan, in the days when the BBC devoted a day’s TV coverage to the great race.
Channel 4 shows the action now. And from next year, it will be ITV’s turn. But the captivating appeal of the National remains the same, as does the challenge it presents to both horse and rider. A challenge that has not been compromised by many sensible changes made to the fences, the track and the race conditions in recent years to meet the demands of safety. As well as a thrilling spectacle, a safe National, without accidents and fatalities, is now the priority for Aintree, and rightly so.
The focus is also on the full package of three days of top-class Jumps racing. Of course, the National remains the centrepiece, but Aintree’s meeting, enthusiastically backed by the people of Liverpool, has ballooned in prestige and reputation beyond recognition over the last ten-to-20 years.
The Grand National beanfeast is no longer just a postscript to the Cheltenham Festival.
It is now a must-be-there event for all racing people. But it still helps to find the winner, so tomorrow The Star presents an A-Z pinsticker’s guide to runners. Good luck!
* Aintree history of Red Rum proportions will me made in the 2016 Grand National if MANY CLOUDS repeats last year’s victory.
He would become only the third horse since the war to carry the huge weight of at least 11st 10lb to glory, emulating Freebooter in 1950 and Red Rum himself in 1974. He would become only the fifth back-to-back winner in history, following in the hoofsteps of Abd-El-Kader in 1850 and 1851, The Colonel in 1869 and 1870, Reynoldstown in 1935 and 1936 and good old ‘Rummy’ in 1973 and 1974. He would make his jockey, Leighton Aspell, the first to win three Nationals on the trot, having also steered Pineau De Re home in 2014. And he would make his owner, cloth-capped millionaire businessman and football club owner Trevor Hemmings, the first man to collect four National first prizes, following on from Hedgehunter in 2005 and Ballabriggs in 2011.
Trained by Oliver Sherwood, Many Clouds is sure to go off a hot favourite. But in a quality field, here are my six of the best who could rattle his cage:
2 MORNING ASSEMBLY
4 GALLANT OSCAR
5 O’FAOLAINS BOY