It’s all change at Aintree’s Grand National this year with a new sponsor at the head of the 2005 affairs in the form of John Smith’s, the ale brand owned by Scottish & Newcastle. A new three-year sponsorship deal will see this year’s 40 runners competing for a purse of £700,000, plus the prestigious title of winner of the world’s most famous steeplechase.

New trophy

The new sponsorship also sees the introduction of a new winner’s trophy (pictured), sculpted by former jump jockey, Philip Blacker. Blacker rode 340 winners during his racing career, and was placed in the National.

The perpetual trophy will be engraved with the details of the winning horse and held for a year by the winning owners. Once the trophy is handed back, the owners will receive a life-size replica trophy, courtesy of John Smith’s to help relive memories of their historic day for years to come.

Other work by Blacker includes the life-size sculpture of the legendary Red Rum, which stands proudly next to the Winners’ Enclosure at Aintree. He is currently working on life-size sculptures of Persian Punch for Newmarket and a dressage horse for the Penang Turf Club, Malaysia.

Timing change

This year’s action will get underway slightly later than usual to allow the BBC to broadcast footage of the wedding between Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles. The Grand National will now be the fifth race on Saturday’s card, kicking off at 4.10pm. The royal wedding has lead to coverage of the early races on Saturday being moved onto BBC2, while the action on BBC 1 will run from 3.30pm until 4.45, including the big race.

How’s the going?

The going for the four mile, four furlong race looks likely to be good to soft after rain fell on Wednesday and Thursday. The weather on National day is expected to be fairly dry.

After walking the course on Wednesday afternoon, clerk of the course Andrew Tulloch said: “It is lovely ground, but we had 4.6mm of rain overnight and another 0.5mm this afternoon so it has definitely eased. We are likely to have a couple more showers overnight, and some may carry over into Thursday morning.

“Friday will be a mixture of sunshine and showers, but temperatures are expected to rise to 11C or 12C on Saturday, which looks like being mainly dry.”

Becher’s Brook

Becher’s Brook has been modified this year to prevent horses from falling back into the channel on the landing side. The change was made in response to concerns raised by the RSPCA last year after a number of horses fell at the infamous fence. The landing is now fairly flat and a padded covering has been placed on top of the channel. However, the ground on landing remains some 2ft lower than that on the take off side, which will undoubtedly catch some horses and riders out.

A sign of respect

There will be a one-minute silence at Aintree today (Friday) as a mark of respect for Pope John Paul II, who died last Saturday. The one-minute silence will take place at 1.45pm, before the first of the seven scheduled races, which is due off at 2pm.

Paralympians ride at Aintree

Individual paralympic gold medallists, Lee Pearson and Debbie Criddle, performed a dressage display to music in front of the grandstands just before the first race of the meeting got underway yesterday. The pair performed with their Athens partners, Blue Circle Boy and Figaro IX. The display is expected to feature on the BBC as part of its coverage of the Grand National meeting.

A past master

And as the runners line up for this year’s big race, the oldest surviving winner will be grazing just 50 miles away. Hallo Dandy, who won the Grand National 21 years ago, is now 31. The past eight years of the chaser’s retirement have been spent at the Thoroughbred Rehabilitation Centre in Lancashire. “Dan”, as he is known, joined the centre after his final public appearance in Aintree’s parade of champions in 1997.

“They don’t make horses like Hallo Dandy any more. He’s an old-fashioned kind of steeplechaser and an example of a dying breed,” said Carrie Humble, founder of the Thoroughbred Rehabilitation Centre. “I never dreamed I would care for a horse who achieved as much on the racecourse as he did. It’s been a privilege.”

  • For a full run down of this year’s runners and riders, plus eight greats recalling their ultimate Grand National moments, see yesterday’s Horse & Hound (7 April, ’05)