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Tony McCoy leads Don't Push It to victory (PA)

‘And it’s over to John Hanmer…’

Nick Metcalfe @Nick_Metcalfe

That’s one of the beauties of the Grand National: the race needs a team of commentators. That’s how long it is, how brutal it is, how compelling it is. The 2.40 at Uttoxeter it isn’t.

For the funny ones among us who mark the passing of time less by days and months and more by sporting events, we know that when spring has just sprung the racing world will gather at Aintree once more for the world’s most famous steeplechase.

I’ve followed the National in bookmakers so full you could hardly breathe and in packed pubs in all corners of the land. I’ve listened to the radio commentary at footballing outposts across the country, often recounting news of the latest fallers to my companions. The only certainty about this weekend is that, at four o’clock on Saturday, I shall stop everything once more to watch the drama unfold.

There are some sporting events that seem to have lost their lustre over the years. The FA Cup final is a good example: that was once a glorious affair that bewitched the watching world. We would gather in our living rooms just after breakfast and watch the whole blessed thing until tea-time. Now it’s barely more than just another big game, lost in a sea of other televised matches and tournaments.

But the National has managed to retain its charm and allure. It’s true that TV viewing figures for the race have fallen since the days when it was the weekend’s only live televised sporting event, but it still exerts a unique hold on the public consciousness, still retains a fascination for millions of sports fans and casual observers alike. It’s a day when many people have their only bet of the year and pinstickers stand alongside seasoned gamblers to cheer on their selections.

Aintree’s fences may no longer be as daunting as they once were, but they remain formidable, famous and evocatively named, from Becher’s Brook and the Chair to Valentine’s and the Canal Turn. And the gruelling four-and-a-half-mile test concludes with the energy-sapping 494-yard run-in that has provided so much drama over the decades. The result is a spectacle beyond compare; a supreme test of stamina and skill.

But if the course always looks familiar, the characters and horses are ever-changing and there are always new stories that breathe life into the great race. Perhaps that’s why the race holds an eternal fascination for the nation: from victories against all odds to hard-luck stories, no other race throws up so many tales that have entered the sport’s folklore.

Stop me if you’ve heard these ones before but these are my favourite National tales…

1956 and all that

Devon Loch’s name has become a sporting metaphor for turning almost certain victory into defeat, after the horse owned by the Queen Mother inexplicably slipped when cantering to victory in the 1956 National. They blamed it on everything from cramp in the horse’s hindquarters to him trying to jump a shadow cast by the nearby water jump.

Jockey Dick Francis later had his own theory, that a huge cheer from the Aintree crowd simply distracted the horse at a crucial moment. The Queen Mother was probably more sanguine than most of the punters who had backed the horse. “Oh, that’s racing,” she said.

The one that got away

Foinavon’s odds of 100-1 accurately reflected his chances in the 1967 Grand National. The horse’s trainer, John Kempton, even opted to ride at Worcester that day rather than watch his charge run at Aintree. He missed quite a race.

A loose horse, Popham Down, caused such mayhem at the 23rd of the 30 fences that the field was brought to a standstill, some horses falling, most refusing to jump the fence. A kind of equine gridlock ensued until Michael O’Hehir, the famous Irish commentator, memorably announced that “with all this mayhem, Foinavon has gone off on his own.”

Riding in his first National, jockey John Buckingham said: “It wasn’t until the Canal Turn that I knew I was on my own. From then on I was just concentrating on keeping him going. He was a lazy old bugger but I knew he wouldn’t fall.” Although 17 horses remounted and set off in pursuit, Foinavon held on for the unlikeliest of victories. The fence at which he made his escape was later named in his honour.

The hat-trick hero

The greatest Aintree champion of them all was Red Rum, or “Rummy” as the nation affectionately came to call him. In 1973, as an eight-year-old, he overhauled the fast-fading Crisp in the final few yards in one of the race’s most famous finishes. But having triumphed again the following year, he was second best to L’Escargot in 1975 and Rag Trade in 1976. A third triumph looked likely to elude horse and trainer Ginger McCain.

However in 1977, the sporting gods decreed otherwise and Red Rum, carrying the top weight of 11st 8lb under Tommy Stack, completed a 25-length victory for an emotional triumph and “a reception you’ve never heard the like of” according to Peter O’Sullevan, the BBC commentator. Red Rum became a national celebrity, even making a guest appearance at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards. Rummy opened supermarkets, graced posters and jigsaw puzzles, and when he died in 1995, was fittingly buried by the winning post at Aintree.

The greatest comeback of all

I so often think that racing is made for those of us who are unashamed sentimentalists, and no story tugged at the public heartstrings more than Bob Champion’s win on Aldaniti in 1981. Champion had been diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1979, doctors giving him only a 40 per cent chance of survival and possibly only months to live.

He underwent an extremely aggressive course of chemotherapy and returned to racing, only for an infection to force him to miss the 1980 National. Undeterred, Champion set his sights on the following year’s race, in which he was to ride Aldaniti, a Josh Gifford-trained horse that had been on the verge of retirement due to a serious leg injury.

In one of the classic National finishes, Aldaniti and his remarkable jockey found inspiration from somewhere to hold off Spartan Missile, ridden by the 54-year-old amateur John Thorne. The story was so captivating that it was told in the 1983 film Champions. Aldaniti died aged 27 from a heart attack; Champion has since survived two of those and raised millions of pounds for cancer research.

A farce from start to finish

Even when nothing goes to plan, Aintree can provide some unforgettable viewing, That was certainly the case in 1993, when the most chaotic of aborted starts paved the way for the National that never was, and an embarrassing episode beyond compare for racing.

The farcical sequence of events began seconds before the race was due to start, when protesters encroached onto the track near the first fence. They were spotted, and the start delayed, but when the horses lined up again some became tangled up with the starting tape, causing a false start.

Already the starter Keith Brown, who was to become the most famous person in Britain that weekend, was beginning to cut a hapless figure. When there was an attempt to start the race again, and horses were again caught in the tape, the recall flag was not waved and 30 of the field began to race, their jockeys unaware of the confusion.

The crowds shouted at the jockeys to try and get them to stop, and officials tried desperately to flag them down, but the damage had been done. Seven horses completed both circuits of the course and pub-quiz devotees won’t need reminding that Esha Ness, ridden by John White and trained by Jenny Pitman, was first across the line.

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If nothing else, the 1993 “non-race” proved the National’s incredible capacity to survive. Even when a bomb scare on the day of the race in 1997 forced the closure of the course, it proved only a hiccup, and the race was run on the following Monday, with Lord Gyllene triumphing. Twelve months ago there was a first win in 15 attempts by the greatest National Hunt jockey of all time, Tony McCoy, prompting a rare public show of emotion from the Ulsterman. Surely this year’s race can’t improve on that. Can it?

Nick currently writes for The Daily Mail and is a veteran of BBC Radio, Sports.com and Teletext

One Response to “Grand National”

  1. Emma Wilkinson April 9, 2011

    I love the Grand National. This is a great piece, so nostalgic. Keep up the good work all of you.

    Reply

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