And as the Grand National kicks off, the rain continues to fall! I have commented many times recently that I have never known as bad a late winter and early spring, with so many meetings being abandoned. While talking to folk from other outdoor walks of life, who have been on this planet longer than I, they all have said that they have never known such a long wet period. Farmers have areas of land under water, where water has never been known to stand before. It is enormously frustrating to be missing opportunity after opportunity to run the horses when they are ready to go.
I was at Doncaster Racecourse on Monday watching the GoffsUK breeze ups, where the horses breezed on part of the jumps track. As you might imagine after 200 odd horses had galloped over the 2 furlongs, the ground was in a poor state. After they had finished I walked across to the adjacent flat track to have a look at its condition after the two day Lincoln meeting three weeks ago. The ground staff have done a thorough job filling in the many holes in the ground with sand and soil, but it looks a mess. The temperature has not been warm enough to encourage any significant grass growth and the filled in holes are just sitting there. It looked to me that if a horse galloped over that ground, it would take many false steps as it hit these pockets of loose soil. I will be giving close consideration before running a horse on any track that has raced so far this season.
While tomorrow’s race isn’t quite “the race that stops the nation”, (that’s the Melbourne Cup, and it does), the Grand National attracts the attention the great race deserves all round the world. Much has been done in recent years to improve the safety for the horses and riders, addressing the way the fences are constructed, the landings and take offs, the start, the run offs for loose horses, the qualifications necessary to participate, amongst other changes. In my opinion these have been achieved without removing the heart of the race and has in fact made it a more competitive event. In days gone by there were really only a proportion of the field that could win, normally, unless Foinavon was there … ! Now with the horses having to fulfil specific qualifications and a compression of the handicap, the winner could come from almost the whole field. One has to remember though that it is a handicap, so all the shenanigans of a horse attaining a competitive mark are often employed! However it does attract the best horses with Gold Cup winners running in recent years.
The race has been the creation of so many stories that have been cemented in the national (appropriately) psyche. From Bob Champion’s emotional win on Aldaniti (who hasn’t got the theme tune to the film Champions running through their head? You have now!); to Red Rum (need I say any more? But one of many facts, with his three wins and two seconds meant he jumped 150 national fences at racing pace without faltering once!); to Mick Fitzgerald remarking that winning the race being better than sex; to Jenny Pitman being the first woman to win it; to AP finally winning it; to Red Marauder in bottomless ground; to the false start fiasco; and to so many other stories.
One of my favourite memories around the race was not actually at the race but at the Sports Personality of the Year Awards when Red Rum was brought into the studio. He was very laid back and was behaving well, considering the alien environment of the television studio for a racehorse, when Tommy Stack was interviewed via a video link. To see how the horse reacted to hearing Tommy’s voice, pricking his ears and looking round to try and see him, is the perfect example of the bond that can exist between a man and a horse. To those that may not be directly associated with racehorses, and to some that are, it is a reminder that horses are living, breathing animals with their own characters, not just a name on a betting slip.
Despite all the hype and expectation of tomorrow’s race, I have one over-riding desire, probably not that different to an expectant father wanting the best for their unborn child, but actually happy to settle for 10 fingers and 10 toes, that all the horses are safely back in their stables tomorrow night.
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