For Deborah Thompson and Belinda McClung this was the most glorious vindication of their decision to buy a racehorse. It had happened during a day of racing at Kelso in 2013, “over a lot of gin”, according to McClung. The idea was largely to give them something to do while their other halves were hacking round the golf course.
“There’s only two weekends maximum in a year he’s not playing golf,” said Thompson, resignedly, of her partner Colin.
They called their partnership The Two Golf Widows to reinforce their motivation. And here they were, four years on, watching One For Arthur, the horse they bought at Cheltenham sales, win the Grand National. According to the laws of karma, their golf-obsessed men should have been otherwise engaged, required to watch their success from a 19th hole somewhere.
“No,” said Thompson, with only a slight hint of regret. “They’re here.” While the owners went through the protocol of victory, picking up the trophy and addressing the press, it was long, long after the race before anyone caught another sight of the winning horse. On a day of Mediterranean temperature, One For Arthur had spent nearly 40 minutes at the conclusion of the four-and-a-half-mile gruel-fest in the cooling off area, being doused in water.
If only such attention was available to one young man who had backed him, his neck ripening into an angry tone of pink as he swayed on the Lord Sefton Terrace waiting to salute his success, before tumbling face first to the ground long before the horse re-emerged.
It was that kind of day at Aintree. After last year’s biblical deluge, this was what the place looks like when the sun shines: glittering, grand, gorgeous. And now, after only the second ever success by a Scottish-owned, Scottish-trained horse, with a saltire flying proudly over the parade ring.
The day had begun with a sight of John Kempton, the trainer of the great underdog Foinavon, wearing the same noisy tweed suit he wore on that victorious day in 1967. He recalled that his jaw-dropping win came in what was thought at the time would be the last-ever National. In financial disarray, the course about to be consumed by a housing development, the race was reckoned an anachronism, overtaken by the modern world.
It is hard to believe, 50 years on, that this was ever an event in danger. Where once it was dying on its hooves, this is now the place where Merseyside’s youth come to show off their finery. As much as a horse race, it has become a festival of fashion, 75,000 ramming the place in their swanky suits and thigh-exposing micro-minis. Everywhere you looked was an extraordinary parade of exposed flesh, tattoos and complicated head wear. And that was just the men.
With the sun relentless and the start delayed to suit the wishes of television, the scene became ever more frantic as the afternoon progressed. Around the Red Rum Garden Bar, this is how the great horse was toasted 40 years after his historic third victory: in a rising tsunami of drink. Here pre-race nerves were being self-medicated as women racegoers wearing not much more than a couple of hankies stitched together were supping directly from bottles of champagne, fitted with funnels for ease of access.
As the day’s big race neared, fake tan, it turned out, was of little protection against the real sun. Noses, shoulders and cheekbones were soon pinking. Attire had gifted some racegoers instant celebrity: there were queues of those seeking out selfies with a woman in an exaggerated mermaid dress and the bloke in a suit apparently fashioned from dollar bills. Around them, excitement was rising vertiginously. By the time the race began, every stand was jumping, every horse serenaded as it passed with a deafening chorus of “c’mon lad”.
And what a race it turned out to be. There are those who say it is not what it was, that in the legitimate attempt to ensure that for the fourth year running every horse returned unharmed, an element of its challenge has been lost. But try telling that to the 40 jockeys lining up at the start, their charges already foaming with sweat.
Because from the off organised chaos prevailed. Horses were tumbling, riders being unseated by loose mounts, jockeys obliged to make the ignominious walk back to the weighing room past all the burger vans exuding temptation to men who hadn’t eaten for a month to make the weight.
Through the mayhem, Derek Fox carefully, methodically, steered One For Arthur. He appeared to be well out of it with five fences to go. But the 24-year-old Fox, who fractured his wrist in a fall only a month before his finest win, kept the horse in touch, skilfully negotiating it through the field. At the final fence One For Arthur was ahead, the distance growing between him and Saint Are as he romped down the last straight, finishing four and a half lengths in front.
For The Two Golf Widows it was the most extraordinary moment, one they had been told, frankly, not to expect. Their trainer Lucinda Russell had warned them that the drinks they were sharing the night before the race might turn out to be the most enjoyable moment of their National experience.
Far from it. There they were at the business end of the day picking up the winners’ cheque for £561,300. That should be enough to pay for their partners’ golf memberships while they go off and do something constructive with their time. Like winning the world’s greatest horse race.