National gem that always glitters

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There is talk of a family outing this afternoon. I have not discouraged this notion but I will not be participating. Shortly after 4pm I will batten down the hatches, usher the dogs outside, disconnect the phone. For this is my favourite day of the year, my favourite 10 minutes. And I don’t want anyone to spoil it.

I love the Grand National.

As the years pass, some great traditional sporting events can lose much of their lustre: the FA Cup, the Derby, the world heavyweight title . . . and hardly anyone left alive can have any idea how big Oxford v Cambridge at Lord’s once was. Others rise to take their place: the Champions League, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the London Marathon . . .

But the National remains ineffably itself. It transcends horseracing, an inward-looking sport that for most of the year has no idea how to present itself to non-punters. It has infiltrated the language in surprising ways: isn’t it Ulysses that’s supposed to be the Becher’s Brook of English literature?

The names of many of the winners are part of the culture too, with Red Rum top of the list. So is one of the losers. Precisely 50 years ago Devon Loch, the Queen Mother’s horse, jumped all the fences and then inexplicably fell over, like Bambi on the ice, with the winning post in sight. Even now his name is trotted out to cover cases of snatching defeat from the jaws from victory. In the past week, there have been mutterings about Chelsea “doing a Devon Loch” and somehow failing to win the Premiership.

The race’s appeal is threefold. First, it is quite simply a marvellous spectacle. All the appeal of racing is there: the silks, the glistening flanks, the flying hooves, the thrills and the spills – sometimes nasty ones. (Yes, there is risk, for both the consenting humans and the conscripted horses, but it always strikes me as significant that horses keep jumping even after being freed of their human burden.)

Second, there is the sense of tradition, perhaps the richest offered by any single sporting event. And third, the race produces the most extraordinary stories. Nothing in Dick Francis’s subsequent fiction matched what happened to him when he was Devon Loch’s jockey. He could not have invented Red Rum’s sequence (1,1,2,2,1) of results in a race that is hard for any horse just to complete even once.

He might perhaps have dared strain the readers’ credulity with Bob Champion’s recovery from cancer to gain victory on Aldaniti in 1981. And trainer Ginger McCain’s success with Amberleigh House, a generation after Red Rum. Or, just about, Foinavon’s bizarre win in 1967. But he couldn’t have come up with the no-race farce of 1993. Nor the bomb scare postponement of 1997.

That year, I had been seeking an interview with a well-known politician. On the Monday morning, he finally succumbed and told me he would see me at 5pm. That was the time of the re-arranged race. I had to tell him I wouldn’t even accept an audience with the Queen at that hour – and that frankly the Queen would have more sense.

There is a fourth point, though this might not be obvious to everyone. Even a middle-ranking oil sheikh finds it hard these days to summon the resources to own a Derby winner. Anyone with a nag in a paddock has a chance of owning a National winner: Red Rum appeared to be a decidedly average chaser round the second-rank northern tracks until he discovered his wondrous affinity with Aintree.

Contrary to myth, the modern National is also a fairly decent betting opportunity. Only a fool could approach such a race with confidence. But I do believe it is possible to analyse criteria such as weight, stamina, going, distance, form and freshness and narrow the 40 runners down to no more than eight or nine plausibles – before opting for the wrong one. If it ever was a pin-sticker’s race, it rarely is these days.

It just keeps getting better too. Aintree seems to have found the right balance between excitement and danger so that caring owners are less afraid to risk their horses there. The place has been spruced up to the point of unrecognisability. The old unsaddling enclosure is now a champagne bar. Aintree was not a champagne kind of track at one time.

In the 1960s and 70s the course was under eccentric ownership, first under Mirabel Topham, who was desperate to sell, and then Bill Davies, whose idea of securing its future was to triple admission prices and empty the place. There were moments when closure seemed a near-certainty. The debate was whether the National should be run at Doncaster or Haydock Park.

They were both atrocious ideas at the time and, happily, unthinkable today. Now, excuse me, there is form to be studied.

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