It was an early start with a fuggy head on day two of my Grand National experience, having spent the previous evening with former winner Bob Champion (is he Monty Roberts’ long lost brother?) and Adrian Maguire, with a bonus appearance from Nick Skelton.
For the first time in yonks, the sun was out and it was a beautiful crisp, fresh morning. We walked the two-mile Grand National course with H&H columnist, fastest-ever race winner and all-round excellent person Marcus Armytage and racing legend Brough Scott (even I have heard of these guys).
They talked us through each fence, beginning at the manic start and desperate, jostling attempt not to be that guy who falls off at the first fence and watches helplessly (and furiously) as their mates gallop off into the distance.
The inside route round the course may be the shortest, but this line also presents the steeper drops and taller fences. And my word these are big fences. Standing 10 strides out from the ferocious canal turn — a vast hedge followed immediately by a 90 degree bend, far from the roar of the stands — it’s peaceful, almost lonely.
We studied the hoofprints from the previous day’s race — at this fence around 30 metres can be gained or lost. If a horse is still too keen at this early stage, or is a brick-head to steer, it’ll go charging off in a straight line while the jockey tries to haul it round. And in case they forget, sponsor John Smith’s has a handy sign to remind jockeys what to do here.
For a single horse and rider, this mass of calculations, accumulation and assimilation of information from all sides — different for and at every fence — are testing. Now imagine 39 other guys (and a gal, mustn’t forget Katie) all travelling at 30 miles per hour, all trying to find the best line, avoid trouble and steer clear of hazardous loose horses. Chaos.
The turf underfoot had been watered and felt springy, alive and resistant all at once. I can only imagine the effort, care and attention that goes into this, especially given that there’s no grass in the rest of the country thanks to this perpetual cold.
During the serious business of learning about the course, we had a giggle at a girl in needle-like stilettos who stuttered past us, her heels plunging deep into the ground with every step. It must’ve been a long two miles for her.
Mid-way round the course lurks The Chair (pictured top). This monster is only jumped once — and rightly so. It’s the beefiest rider-scarer you’re ever likely to see. Horses need plenty of petrol left in the tank to stretch over the yawning 6ft ditch in front of the 5ft2in fence — the biggest on the course. This one needs to be ridden like you mean it.
Walking down the run-in we stopped at the point where Devon Loch “did the starfish” under Dick Francis in 1956 — sprawling on his tummy just meters from the finish. Replays of his splat were played throughout the day, the poor old boy. The cause was never established.
Time for action
This year 70,000 people poured in to Aintree on National day. The atmosphere was even more frenetic than on ladies’ day and as 4.15pm approached, I could feel my heart quicken.
We watched the race from a high balcony in the glorious afternoon sunshine. The National has always been on TV and at arms-length for me. But being here and having met some of the jockeys and their families, the risk and excitement was palpable and intense. There’s a huge sense of occasion, a sort of coming together of a year’s worth of work by thousands of people building to this slick, thrilling crescendo. The National means so much to so many.
One of the biggest cheers came when the entire field of 40 cleared Becher’s Brook — a first, I believe.
Even the drunk man’s fat stomach pressing me into the railings and spilling beer down my back in the closing stages couldn’t ruin the exhilaration.
The winner, a 66-1 shot surprised everyone (including his trainer). It didn’t much matter to me who won; I was totally caught up in the moment as the horses streamed over the finish. I thought everyone else was too until some bright spark piped up behind us: “Is it over?”. There’s always one!
The physical prowess of these horses is astounding. I’ve always thought racing is a million miles away from the reasons I first fell in love with these magnificent athletes. The incredible versatility of these trusting, soft-nosed beasties made me fall in love with them all over again.
Things I learnt
- It’s not just dressage horses that are beautiful
- Don’t bet. Ever. I can’t pick a winner to save my life
- Use sunscreen when the sun shines. Even if it’s cold