Spring in Britain is late this year, or has perhaps been abolished by the government in the latest cutbacks. Happily, most of the seasonal rituals are continuing, which is some kind of compensation for the absence of such fripperies as warmth, flowers and rebirth.
And thus on Thursday the annual Grand National race meeting will be starting on schedule at Aintree, near Liverpool, culminating on Saturday in “the National” itself, a race with a history dating back to before Victorian times: four and a half miles, 40 horses and 30 fences, the most fearsome of them with names ingrained in the culture. Neither my reference shelves, the web nor my memory can tell me who it was that described reading Middlemarch as the Becher’s Brook of English literature, but someone did.
Although British horseracing – like the Church – has become somewhat marginalised, the National pushes it back nearer to centre stage than anything else. It is traditionally the day when non-betting types risk a pound or two, mainly because of the belief that any old nag might win. Thanks to the 30 fences, this sometimes proves true, though not often. However, it is a handicap; and in contrast to the big flat races, which are contested by a coterie of billionaire owners, the National winner often returns in glory to some rustic stable, to be garlanded by newly enriched villagers who proceed to drink the pub dry.
Among the rituals is a certain amount of silliness. This year’s dollop has been served up by a Cambridge “maths whizz”, who announced a formula to predict the winner. This turned out to be largely based on finding a horse with a one-word name, probably beginning with S, R, M or C.
The maths whizz, one William Hartston, is better known for his more genuine expertise on chess, and as author of The Encyclopedia of Useless Information. Indeed. His system suggested the winner should be Seabass, the second-favourite, an answer a maths whizz might have found by studying the form book.
Another ritual has been revived after more than 30 years’ absence. This year’s race is being described as “perhaps the last Grand National” – an annual occurrence in the 1960s and 1970s, when Aintree’s owners at the time saw more potential in building houses on this vast open space than in staging occasional race meetings. This time the enemy is without: the Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, having chuntered for years about the safety of the race, has now become threatening, especially about Becher’s Brook.
A race that once united the nation now divides it, partly along the familiar town vs country lines. The same is becoming true of the once universally respected RSPCA. Gavin Grant, its chief executive, has announced portentously that “Becher’s is on a yellow card”, as though he were the referee, not the head of an interest group. His inspectors reinforce this impression by marching round in uniforms in the manner of traffic wardens.
As every pony club parent knows, stuff happens when humans and horses jump. The equine death rate in jump racing is higher than in flat racing: 0.4 per cent of runners against 0.06 per cent. It is dangerous for the riders too – an Irish jockey was left paralysed by a fall at the Cheltenham Festival last month. The recent Grand National average suggests that one of the 40 horses will not come back.
The present crisis was precipitated by the death of Synchronised, which had won the Cheltenham Gold Cup only a few weeks earlier, and then fell at Becher’s last year. The publicity has obscured the fact that he ran on for some time after his fall and that the fence appears unconnected to his death.
Aintree has, not for the first time, reduced the steep drop at Becher’s and softened its other jumps, as well as slightly shortening the distance to try to prevent the jockeys charging so fast to the first fence. Inherently, though, the greatest test in the sport will be the most dangerous.
Frankly, neither side always helps its case. One jockey, Katie Walsh, has just risked scandalising urban pet-loving England by being quoted as saying: “They are horses at the end of the day”. That is, not humans. What rural England knows is that, left to themselves, horses in a field celebrate the joys of spring by racing each other, and risk fatal injuries in the process. One does vaguely suspect the RSPCA would prefer them to be safely sitting down, probably reading Middlemarch.