We all had a bit of fun with the virtual Grand National, which was won by the Christian Williams-trained, Welsh National winner Potters Cross, on Saturday, 4 April. It was watched by nearly five million people – half the number who watched the actual Grand National in 2019 in the UK, but about seven times the number who watched the virtual National the same year.
More importantly, though, bookmakers raised a staggering £2.6m for the NHS. This was an amazing amount, given that the maximum bet was £10 per horse, per person, and the average amount bet was just over £2.
There was some entertaining banter around it. Within minutes of having fallen at the second last when going clear on Aso, jockey Charlie Deutsch had changed his Twitter profile picture to his “virtual fall”.
Winning the Grand National is such a special thing – such a unique feeling like no other race and not even the Cheltenham Gold Cup comes near it. Barely a day has passed in the 30 years since I won on Mr Frisk in 1990 that it has not been mentioned to me by someone.
So a part of me was sad at the end of what would have been National day, when I’d have been driving home from Liverpool – still excited by the thrills and spills of the race – because someone has been denied what could have been a genuine life-changing and career-altering moment.
My tears are not for trainers like Gordon Elliott, Willie Mullins or those who have tasted victory before, but for the smaller outfits like Christian Williams and Robert Walford, trainers respectively of Potters Corner and Walk In The Mill – the first two home in the virtual race, who both had excellent chances going into the real thing.
Yes, they might both be back next year with similar chances, but the horses had been in good form this season. They’ll return aged 11, but probably not getting any quicker with another crop of younger horses to take on.
‘It will be back’
I celebrated the 30th anniversary of Mr Frisk’s Grand National win with, ironically, a seven-mile run to get me out of the house.
I have always been a great believer in fate and – for me to have won a National – having your stars aligned on the right day. It was fate how I got a late spare ride on the Kim Bailey-trained Mr Frisk, a firm-ground specialist, at Doncaster three years before the National.
During my winning ride, at Becher’s Brook second time, I went past the front-running Uncle Merlin with jockey Hywel Davies perched precariously on his ears after a mistake. I was convinced Hywel would get back in the saddle and rejoin me again at the Canal Turn, but I never saw him again.
That it was one of only two Nationals run on the firm since World War II redoubles my belief in fate. But the more I think about it, the luckier I think I was. What if there had been coronavirus in 1990? Watching replays and seeing how close we had lined up on the tapes – our horses’ noses touching it – what if that had been the year for the false start and void National, which happened three years later?
It would have been fun to be at Aintree for the 30th anniversary of my greatest day, but I can live without that. While fate worked in my favour back then, it has conspired against all 40 runners this time. Next year, it will be back as strong as ever I’m sure.
Ref Horse & Hound; 9 April 2020