Few British sporting events attract the worldwide audience that tunes into the Grand National steeplechase, staged for the 159th time at Aintree, near Liverpool, on Saturday, writes Robin Oakley.
When the 40 runners set off on their gruelling four-and-a-half miles over 30 formidable spruce fences such as The Chair and Becher’s Brook, they will be watched by some 650m people, nearly 10m of them in Britain alone. That compares with 5.5m who watch the London marathon and 2.6m the Derby, Britain’s best-loved Flat race. The race is broadcast to more than 300 countries on every continent, including China, the US, South Africa and Brazil.
The National, however, is not a race that international competitors, apart from those from Ireland, have found it easy to win. American riders have come over and scored on English-trained horses, as Tommy Smith did on Jay Trump in 1965 and Charlie Fenwick on Ben Nevis in 1980, but although horses trained in Hungary, the former Czechoslovakia, Russia and Norway have competed, not one finished the course. Even competitors from France, with its jump-racing tradition, have found success hard to come by.
Irish trainers, though, are proving ever-more successful in snatching English steeplechasing prizes. This year they won all three big contests at the Cheltenham Festival, the Champion Chase, the Champion Hurdle and the Gold Cup. Hedgehunter, second in this year’s Gold Cup, also won last year’s Grand National for trainer Willie Mullins, the first horse since 1988 to carry more than 11st in doing so. Hedgehunter then realised a 34-year ambition for owner Trevor Hemmings, one of a clutch of leading racing figures including David Johnson, Sir Robert Ogden and J.P. McManus who have spent a fortune over the years in the quest for a National winner.
Rich owners don’t always have the public sharing their dreams but there would be a big cheer if victory went this year to Clan Royal, the horse vying for the favourite’s slot with Hedgehunter. Clan Royal is owned by Geneva-based currency trader and property magnate J.P. McManus, who was the first to congratulate the winner’s connections in 2004 when Clan Royal, whose rider had lost his whip, was passed on the run in by Amberleigh House. Last year Clan Royal was leading at Becher’s second time around when a loose horse got in his way.
Prepared all season for the National, Clan Royal will be partnered by champion jockey Tony McCoy, who is himself desperate to win the National, a race in which he has never finished better than third.
Last year McManus ran seven horses in his quest for a National victory. This year he has four. As well as Clan Royal, he runs Risk Assessor, the veteran First Gold and the well-backed Innox, an impressive winner of the Racing Post Chase at a time when bad weather had his French trainer, François Doumen, struggling to get his horses fit.
Take Hedgehunter, Clan Royal and Innox against the field and you should not go far wrong.
Statistics are there to be confounded but those seeking to narrow their field of potential wagers might like to note that nine-year-olds have the best record; that while 12 mares have won the race, the last of them was Nickel Coin back in 1951; and that only two greys have ever won the National, The Lamb (1868 and 1871) and Nicolaus Silver (1961).
Horses at the top end of the handicap have also found it hard over the past quarter-century to win the National, with 23 of the last 27 winners carrying less than 11st. But Hedgehunter carried 11st 1lb last year and the official handicapper, Phil Smith, has been deliberately compressing the weights to give quality horses a chance of winning the £700,000 on offer in what he calls “the greatest race in the world”.
One of the most intriguing partnerships this year puts leading amateur Nina Carberry, having her first National ride, aboard Forest Gunner. Only three women have ever completed the National course. One was Carrie Ford, who finished fifth last year on Forest Gunner, trained by her husband Richard, having come out of retirement for the ride only 10 weeks after giving birth.
Admittedly Forest Gunner has disappointed this season and he and Nina parted company at the third fence in November’s ToteSport Becher Chase. But he is an Aintree specialist who has won both the Fox Hunters Chase and the Grand Sefton Chase over the National fences, and Carberry has family form. Her father, Tommy, rode L’Escargot to victory in the 1975 National and trained Bobbyjo to win it in 1999 with Nina’s brother, Paul, in the saddle. Last year Nina was the first woman for 18 years to ride a winner at the Cheltenham Festival and she is in heavy demand among Irish trainers.
Win or lose with his three runners Amberleigh House, Ebony Light and the recently acquired Inca Trail, one Aintree legend will be making this his last National as a trainer. At the end of the season Ginger McCain, now 75, will hand over his 55-horse stable to his son, Donald, and become his outspoken assistant.
McCain, who loves to wind up the media with his extreme but usually tongue-in-cheek opinions on racing officialdom, the county set and women riders – Ford, he said last year, couldn’t win “because she’s a brood mare now” – has become an essential part of the National entertainment package.
But racing folk will never forget how McCain tuned up Red Rum on the sands behind his secondhand-
car salesroom to be the greatest National performer, winning the race three times and coming second twice. Watch the crowds flock to Red Rum’s grave in the shadow of the winning post or rubbing the old boy’s statue near the parade ring and you can be sure that the Grand National will never lose its magic.