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An Australian perspective on a British tradition, the Grand National at Aintree

April 21, 2012

It’s the world’s most famous steeplechase. Run at a spacious track a mere 10 miles from the heart of scouse territory in Liverpool, it is one of the world’s most fascinating race meetings.

Of course, I am talking of the Grand National, that supreme test of stamina over the massive fences at Aintree. It is known the world over for its staggering fences (think of Becher’s Brook, Foinavon, The Chair…), its massive field and for the incredible stories it produces year after year.

I do not follow National Hunt racing closely, yet I know the stories of the Grand National. I know of that epic battle in 1973, when Red Rum grabbed the courageous Australian chaser Crisp. I know that Red Rum came back and won again in 1974 and 1977, becoming a national icon in the making. I know of the void race in 1993, and of the rescheduled contest in 1997. I know of the Queen Mother’s galloper Devon Loch doing the splits when looking a certain winner in 1956. And I know that, very ironically, the first winner of the Grand National was called Lottery.

It was an honour to be able to visit Aintree on the next leg of my global racing tour. Little was I to know I would experience such contrasting emotions at this prestigious National Hunt meeting. I remember writing of the rollercoaster ride that was Cox Plate day last year, but I honestly think Aintree saw even more extreme emotions – and this was within such a short space of time.

In terms of atmosphere, it is truly Liverpool’s own version of the Melbourne Cup. It is a massive social occasion. I talked to a fair few racegoers on the day, but many I struggled to understand through the harsh Liverpudlian accent. There were some sublime performances – Mick Kinane, now retired, rode his first winner at Aintree in a charity flat race. There were some splendid victories from stars in the making – horses like Simonsig and Sprinter Sacre. Nevertheless, the atmosphere for the feature itself was electric. Despite all the ensuing drama, the finish was a buzz.

If you haven’t seen the race yet, here is the 2012 Grand National as shown by Racing UK. Remember, too, that this was already 15 minutes late – Synchronised had dropped jockey Tony McCoy near the start and cantered along for almost a kilometre. He was passed fit to start. But a false start and a couple of overly keen jockeys had ensured it was pushed back even further. Finally, they got a keen break – just as the crowd was becoming rather restless. I wouldn’t have wanted to be a part of that crowd in 1993, when the race was abandoned after the false start signals failed. Anyway, the 2012 Grand National:

Let me preface my thoughts by saying I had two each way bets in the race – on According to Pete and Neptune Collonges.

First, the grey Neptune Collonges. What a gutsy performance! He was being scrubbed up before the first jump. He looked unlikely to feature until the final 200 yards, when he picked up ground. Still, it looked like he would struggle to catch Sunnyhill Boy.  But he gradually wore him down, and on the line it was tight – I couldn’t tell who had won. I wondered how the Melbourne Cup could have two such tight photos within four runnings, given it was over 3200m. But the fact that so little could separate two gallopers after they’d jumped 30 fences and run four miles and four furlongs – in metric terms, more than 7200m – is incredible.

When the judge announced that Neptune Collonges had won, I jumped into the air. You don’t catch me cheering for horses so much anymore. I did let out a small cheer for Ortensia in Dubai. But I haven’t been that enthusiastic about a horse since So You Think won his second Cox Plate. Actually, that’s probably a lie – I’m enthusiastic when I watch Black Caviar. But it is still rare. Nevertheless, I was riding Neptune Collonges all of the way – but I didn’t start cheering until the Elbow, not believing he had a chance until he made that awkward turn.

Sadly, the other horse I was cheering – According To Pete – came down at Becher’s Brook on the second lap. He had been brought down by On His Own. To be honest, I thought I saw him get up and gallop on so he dropped from my mind…especially as I cheered on Neptune Collonges. But I was later to learn he was one of two fatalities, along with the favourite Synchronised. It was only four weeks ago that I saw Synchronised at his peak, winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Probably one of the most harrowing moments I’ve experienced on a racecourse came ten minutes after the conclusion of the Grand National. It occurred just behind the main stand. I was still on a high after the race, happy about the win of Neptune Collonges, when I heard a bloodcurdling scream. I looked to my right, to see a woman collapsing on the stairs, a mobile phone dangling from her hand. She was screaming “no, no, no” and she needed assistance to make it down the stairs. I saw her lean heavily on two men as she walked off to the stabling area.

A person I spoke to nearby told me she was connected with one of the deceased gallopers, and that she had just been told the news. It was truly chilling – she looked as though she’d just found her whole family dead. It just shows the emotional connection that can be formed between humans and horses. It still makes me sick to think about it, even a week on.

The media firestorm was tremendous. A great proportion of the British population watches the race, either live or on replay, so it creates headlines anyway. It is a British tradition. But the loss of two horses overshadowed the gutsy win of Neptune Collonges. Still, the media coverage of the race was intriguing.

For all those who say the Grand National is on its last legs, I disagree completely. I reckon the race will be amended – the field size will be reduced and the drop jumps like Becher’s Brook (which see the horses land two to three feet lower) will be eradicated completely. But there simply isn’t the momentum to get rid of the race. With jumps racing in Australia, the momentum is there – and it is very plausible that the Australian jumps industry could be dead within the decade.

But with the Grand National, it seems as though the idea of the race dying is implausible, unfathomable. It came as a shock to me to hear a leading critic of the race on television. He didn’t call for the abolition of the contest, but instead made suggestions on how it could be avoided in the future.

For someone so used to the hostile nature of Australian anti-jumps activists, it was refreshing to hear.

Anyone who says it is not a spectacle to witness in person is lying. It is a great spectacle. But when the spectacle involves the death of horses, it obviously needs to be re-examined. The welfare of the horse must come first.

Hopefully a balance can be struck where the race can continue, even if in an amended form. Because there is no doubt when the race is run without casualties, it is a great opportunity for the racing industry. It brings attention to the industry on both sides of the Irish Sea, and in most instances it is good attention. For example, I was on a bus from Dublin to Limerick on Monday and much of the discussion was dedicated to the Grand National – and this wasn’t a racing show, this was just your average morning talkback show.

Let’s hope the race can continue in a safer form so that the headlines each year reflect the stunning triumphs of the horse. For we know that’s much more preferable than having to write an obituary for another grand galloper lost to the Aintree fences.

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