It was with utter trepidation that my mother told me the dates of this year’s family holiday at Easter. And well might she have been afraid. A look at the calendar confirmed my worst fears. On the day the greatest race on earth is run, I will be hundreds of miles from home, dutifully touring French vineyards with my parents. No amount of Provencal sunshine can make up for the fact that, for the first time in the eight years I have followed horse racing, I will miss the Grand National.
When I made this very valid point to my parents they asked the apparently reasonable question: "So what? Its just another race."
When weighed against two weeks in France, courtesy of my parents, I can almost see their point of view. But as everyone with any connection with racing knows, the Grand National is not ‘just another race’. It represents everything that is great and good about our favourite sport. It epitomises the skill and courage demanded daily of the participants of the sport. It symbolises the trait inherent in every person connected with racing- hope and optimism. For ten minutes every Easter the nation watches, hopes and prays, united by the feats and fates of forty horses. What other sport boasts such an event, which can cross all barriers, bringing together people of every age and race?
The Grand National is a race that hovers on the edge of many people’s consciousness. They are aware and take a passing interest, but cannot recall from one year to the next the previous winner. When the great race rolls round again, they dutifully study the form, draw a name in the office sweepstake, or stick a pin in the list. I won’t pretend for a second that I am a good tipster, but I can study the form. But each year, the formbook goes out the window and sentimentality takes over. Dad is dispatched to the local bookies, shame-facedly clutching the fifty pence bets of the family. Mum goes for female horses or trainers. My brother picks regal sounding names. Granny and Grandpa stay loyal to their roots and select a Northern runner. Me? I’m a sucker for a good story. If I had been born, you can bet your life I’d have had my pocket money on Aldaniti.
But that’s all part of the charm, the bewitching magic that makes me dedicate the day to events in Liverpool. It’s the one race where you’re allowed, nay, positively encouraged to let your emotions guide you. A belief in fairy stories is obligatory. Over thirty years has passed since Foinavon proved that the impossible can happen. Yet who amongst us can honestly say they’ve never backed a horse in the National at an impossibly big price, because maybe… just maybe?
It is a well-documented fact that in racing hope springs eternal. Why else would we trust our time and energy to the capricious moods of horses? Simply because racing’s greatest features is that there’s always a chance. Never say never. One horse can bring the entire field to a standstill. A horse can recover from crippling injury and win. The unusual fences of Aintree can rejuvenate the worthiest recipients of Timeform’s infamous double squiggle.
Perhaps these facts do make a mockery of the formbook. Top weights may not often win. Class horses are not always risked in racing’s most extreme test. But do these things really detract from the race? There are those critics who would say the great race is essentially just a large handicap run over a very long, unusual course. Yet to argue that is to miss the point, to resist the magic.
The Cheltenham Gold Cup is the Blue Riband, the true championship test. The National sorts the men from the boys. Its throws up the horse with the guts to face adverse conditions and come home in front. The recent absence of top class names from Grand National fields in no way detracts from the race. The history of the National sets it apart. It will not flounder without a Gold Cup winner. While such horses would set up interesting clashes, it is not essential.
A generation of racing fans have grown up secure in the knowledge that the National is here to stay, as much a part of the sporting calendar as Wimbledon and the Boat Race. But it’s not many years since the fate of the race balanced on a knife-edge. The Seventies saw a succession of ‘last’ Nationals. Somehow the race survived. People dedicated great time and energies to ensuring the survival of an event that is part of our national heritage. If not for the endless campaigning by a tireless group of industry insiders, Aintree would very likely now be another group of executive homes with double garages. Then almost as soon as its future was secured, animal rights lobbyists began the clamour for modifications. No sensible person could argue that Becher’s Brook is not still a formidable obstacle, but gone is the treacherous lip that caught out so many horses over the years. Still though the arguments rage as to the safety of the race. Yet the National is here to stay. What other sporting event has undergone such rigours and emerged fighting, still firmly in possession of its irresistible lure?
For that is the charm of the Grand National. From the first time Grandstand plays the theme from ‘Champions’ you know you’re in for another big slice of schmaltz. Amateurs take on professionals. The underdog has as much chance as the champion. Another ‘horse with a story’ will win. Another trainer and jockey will have the most unforgettable day of their lives. A worldwide audience of millions will tune in, drawn by the chance, luck and lottery of the steeplechasing’s greatest race. And somewhere, somehow, in Southern France I plan to be part of that audience.
"Just another race"? I don’t think so.