Another Chapter in Our National History

'Beecher's Brook, now with whiskey' by Auriel

One summer I worked in France for a Countess no less. She had a sprawling house amidst several acres. Whilst showing me around we paused in the library. There were sepia photographs of amongst others Elizabeth Taylor.

‘My mother was Enid Bagnold who wrote National Velvet’ she explained and then her whole body bristling with pride,

 ‘I was Velvet’. 

For a pony mad little girl National Velvet had been essential Christmas viewing. I too had wanted to ride in The Grand National-but not if I had to cut my hair.

No such qualms for Nina Carberry who is bidding for a hat trick of wins for her illustrious family. Father Tommy at the head of the Carberry clan is the only man to have ridden (L’Escargot 1975) trained (Bobbyjo 1999) and bred (Paul Carberry also 1999) Grand National winners.

In aiming to improve on her personal best (9th Forest Gunner 2006) and win aboard Organisedconfusion, a 7 year old, the stats are against her, favouring a 9 or 10 year old. Recent trends suggest that using your sharpened pin the field can be narrowed down considerably if you reduce the field to these coupled with a weight of under 11 stone- although  Don’t Push It managed despite  11stone 5lbs.

Runners at The Cheltenham Festival don’t have a good record in the National. Yet Martin Pipe trained Freddie Star’s Minnehoma to win in 1994 using The Gold Cup as a prep race. With the extra week between Cheltenham and Aintree Festivals this year, son David may try to replicate this feat with Junior who ‘stays longer than the mother in law.’

I’m hoping that he’ll book jockey Niall ‘Slippers’ Madden (Numbersixvalverde 2006) to ride and we can have Pipe and Slippers. What a terrific horse Junior must be to own; a winner at Royal Ascot (2010) and the Cheltenham Festival (2011). Could it really be that he could also land the world famous Blue Riband of Aintree?

Aintree executives walk a tightrope bringing the fear, the doubt and the danger into our sitting rooms.  In aiming to increase the audience to an estimated 600 million globally they have moved the race over the years from 3 o’ clock in Red Rum’s era to 4.15 today.  It was even moved back to 3pm in 1996 to accommodate the Hong Kong viewer.

The scrutiny afforded by aerial shots from overhead cameras and slow motion action replays are a far cry from Emigrant’s win in 1857. Jockeys became disorientated in the fog and Charlie Boyce found himself on the canal towpath. Without the inconvenience of the fences he found he’d built up a substantial lead when re-joining the field to taste triumph without so much as a steward’s enquiry.

Controversy however marred last year’s race. The unseasonably warm weather increased the stamina sapping Aintree factor and provisions designed to provide relief after the horses’ exertions, served only to add credence to criticism. The steeplechase was blighted by the loss of 2 horses which absolutely no one wants to see. I still haven’t got over Alverton’s untimely death in front of Beecher’s in 1979.

The course has been continually modified since the race began in 1839. For the first 5 years a stone wall stood where the water jump now stands. The drop at Beecher’s Brook has been reduced and the ditch in which Captain Beecher famously fell and quipped ‘water tastes disgusting without the benefit of whisky’ has been filled.  Canal Turn has been screened to prevent horses anticipating the right angled turn, and run offs have been incorporated to discourage pile ups as in 1967, Foinavon’s year.

It often seems a prerequisite that the winner carries a great story of adversity. Bob Champion’s battle with cancer winning with the glass legged Aldaniti of our modern age, and none more so than New Zealand runner Moiffa who was brought over by boat, shipwrecked and presumed dead before being found on a rocky outcrop south of Ireland. Incredibly he was nursed back to health to win the 1904 National, a 25-1 shot.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the vagaries of the Great British weather will give the biggest clue of all in setting the scene somewhere between the 1990 Mr Frisk fast track and the 2001 Red Marauder mud bath. Saved especially for this race West End Rocker at 10 years old, 10 stone 12 lbs. and a winner over the fences is a lovely big old fashioned type who will appreciate softer ground.

I can hear the post- race jockey interview now…  ‘We were going really well, until the first fence….’



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