Why the Grand National is the holy grail and sporting immortality the prize

Marcus Armytage
Red Rum, ridden by Tommy Stack, wins the 1977 Grand National - Sporting Pictures

The jockeys riding in Saturday’s Randox Health Grand National at Aintree may face slightly different challenges to those faced by my generation in the 1990s - just as we faced very different challenges from those riders who tackled the upright gorse obstacles of the 1950s in cork helmets.

But even while the course continues to evolve, the Grand National remains a race like no other. Reg Green, the Grand National historian, even called one of his books ‘A Race Apart'.

It still holds a place close to the country’s heart and though it may not be quite the family occasion when we drew the curtains and all gathered round a television set in the sitting room to watch it undisturbed, a good percentage of the nation will nevertheless see it one way or another - as will some 600 million around the world.

Form goes out of the window. The safest bet is that every Arthur in the country will have a small wager on One For Arthur, that Katie Walsh on Wonderful Charm will be this year’s housewives’ choice and, in China where red is a lucky colour, Definitly Red and Vieux Lion Rouge will be popular.

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Grand National 2017 horse by horse guide

But those people involved as jockeys, trainers, owners, stable lads and even this journalist will leave home for Aintree with a tingle of excitement which they never experience on any other racing day of the year. Thanks to the exploits of Foinavon 50 years ago, even those with no-hopers will foster hopes of the impossible.

The National remains unique for several reasons. First run in 1839 – the restored silks worn by Gem Mason on Lottery that year have just gone on display in Newmarket’s National Horseracing Museum - it has a rich history. It may not be as old or as influential as the Derby (1780) but its winners are better remembered.

What letter have winning horses' names started with?

Heroes are still fabled, as are some of the losers, the unlucky and the plucky. In the Borders of Scotland, 50 years on, they still remember two-time runner-up Freddie.

Donald Trump, Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, apparent no-hopers coming through to lead their political parties, have all been likened to ‘Foinavon’ in the press lately and, 61 years after he did the splits 50 yards from the winning post, to do a ‘Devon Loch’ and steal defeat from the jaws of victory remains very much common parlance, and not just in sport.  

Devon Loch did the splits Credit: AP

Even with 90 yards lopped off it to shift the start away from the cauldron of Aintree’s new grandstands, at four miles and almost three furlongs, it is the longest jump race in the world and, with 40 runners, also boasts the biggest field.

Put 40 sets of different silks on each of those horses, set them against the verdant green background of spring turf and the unique spruce fences – as opposed to the mid-winter black birch of park courses - and you already have the most colourful tableaux in sport.

8.8 years old is the magic point for Grand National horses

The three biggest changes to the race in recent years have been the physical alterations to the course which took place following the 2012 edition, the handicapping of the race and the prize-money which now stands at £1 million, twice the value of the Gold Cup.  

The fences are like old friends you meet once a year; Becher’s Brook, the Canal Turn, Valentine’s, The Chair. Momentarily the Melling Road, for 364 days a year a rat-run between Aintree and Fazakerley, is the best known street in Britain.

Grand National Festival 2017: Ladies Day at Aintree, in pictures

Outwardly, the fences are not much different. They remain relentlessly big – The Chair is 5ft 2in and preceded by a 6ft ditch. They retain their capacity to inspire some horses to run way above themselves and an equal number to perform like a shadow of their normal selves. Some horses love the place, the occasion, the big field, others loathe it.  

But replacing the wooden stake skeleton of the fences with ‘plastic birch’ was a masterstroke by the Aintree authorities when the race was under pressure following the death of the Gold Cup winner Synchronised. It, as much as all changes have been designed to do, has reduced the price of failure.

When I first rode round there in the Aintree Foxhunters of 1986 I could not believe how much longer a horse hung in the air over a National fence than it did over a normal fence. By the time I rode Mr Frisk in 1990, Becher’s had already been filled in following a problem there in 1989 but I still had the sensation of being airborne so much longer.

One out of every six Grand National favourites end up winning

Back then the fence I feared the most was the first because even good jumpers were tempted to get over-excited, over-jump and get caught out by the drop. The removal of that drop means that fence no longer seems a big problem but, one suspects, that with less early thinning of the field the problem just shifts down to the Canal where 40 horses take a 90 degree left-turn.

When Mr Frisk won the race only 11 horses carried more than 10st. Picking the winner was relatively easy because nine times out of 10 it was won by a horse in the 10st 3lbs – 10st 11lbs range. (That year three of the first four were in that band). Now, because of the draw of the prize money and the way it is handicapped, all 40 runners will carry 10st 6lbs or more.

Grand National 2017

The handicapper describes it as a ‘better’ race but I believe ‘deeper’ is the word for it – how can it better Red Rum versus Crisp? It has certainly become a lot harder to pick the winner. Since 2012 the champions have come home at 33-1, 66-1, 25-1 twice and 33-1.

Ultimately, however, with racing’s holy grail and sporting immortality as the prize, the Grand National is the most disappointing race in the world for those involved. On Saturday night, the connections of 39 horses will go home let down by their hopes and expectations. And one set will go home euphorically happy, their lives changed forever. 

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