There is literally nowhere in the world I’d rather be than where I am right now. Aintree on John Smith’s Grand National Day is electric. The tide of excitement as the first race approaches catches everyone up as it rushes in; my heart is beating faster and faster and there’s four hours to go until the big race.
H&H news writer Amy Mathieson and I have just walked the course with two Aintree veterans, Marcus Armytage and Brough Scott. Marcus won the race in 1990 on Mr Frisk in a record time; Brough never managed that, but he rode over the big fences plenty of times and has written about and commented on the great race for decades.
They are both brilliant storytellers, and have an anecdote for every yard of the course. We all know about the false start and void race in 1993, but did you know Marcus was lined up next to Richard Dunwoody, who had the tape caught round his neck at the start? Or that one of the reasons the jockeys were so pushy at the start and desperate to get going that year was that it was freezing cold, and when you’ve starved down to 10 stone you really feel it?
It was enthralling. Brough told us about being catapulted head first into the open ditch; Marcus about falling at the first, and being so bloody hungry, having got down to 10st from his natural 11.5st, that he headed straight for the burger van beside the fence, unable to resist the smell.
Getting right up to the fences, smelling the spruce they are covered in, really makes you understand what a unique and thrilling race it is. They are the most inviting fences for a horse to jump you can imagine – I know they are huge, but their sloping, solid profile draws you in.
“This is better than the best line of hedges you’ve ever jumped out hunting, Catherine,” said Marcus as we hit the straight stretch at the top end of the course after the Canal Turn. Imagine the utter, utter thrill of meeting them on the right stride, soaring over, landing and galloping on.
We get to the run-in, and Marcus asks his seven-year-old son, Artie, what happened to Devon Loch. Artie demonstrates his version of the Devon Loch sprawl before the winning post – several times, which hasn’t improved the look of his trousers, now with grass stains on the knees.
Perhaps the most interesting thing for horsey people is the new area beside where the finishers pull up. It’s a large, covered (to provide shade) square with an artificial surface like a m ©nage with huge misting fans, like they used at the Hong Kong Olympics at the end of the cross-country, and all sorts of cooling methods to aid equine recovery. There’ll be vets, ice – anything you can think of to help horses at the end of this 4.5 mile extreme test. It’s the first of its kind and really shows how hard Aintree try to get it right.
It’s time for Amy and I to get out of our jeans and wellies and into something a bit less comfortable. Dresses, heels – and coats. It’s sunny but chilly and, unlike lots of girls here today, I don’t think Aintree would be improved by the sight of our bare flesh. And we’re not wearing nearly enough fake tan.