7 April 2002
All the years combine. All the drama, the strain, the sometimes tragedy, the hunger for history that goes to winning the Grand National were in that instant as What’s Up Boys and Bindaree battled past us. There was just a hundred yards between them and a date on Aintree’s immortal victory roll.
Thirty fences completed, four miles, 3½ furlongs completed but still this National had not a winner, still there was one more trick to play. We were standing by The Chair fence where the final rail stretches as a wobbly white line to the winning post. Richard Johnson and What’s Up Boys had driven past Jim Culloty on Bindaree, the grey past the chesnut, the red silks past the green. Johnson was a demented demon as he forced ahead but his horse was drifting right-handed. For Culloty there was the chance to switch left for the rail.
The race always plays on the heartstrings, but never more than this time around. The National Anthem beforehand, then a minute’s silence with the Queen Mother smiling pink-hatted on the big screen. She was not just the nation’s departed granny, but long ago had become the patron saint of this jumping game. Forty men and horses filed past us. Martell and the BBC make this the ultimate global operation. But at its heart it is a challenge. A challenge only they who pull the goggles down can really understand.
Nine of them went at the very first obstacle. The grey Carryonharry met the fence on a perfect stride for take-off, but some flash of indecision made him take another stride. He hit the fence with his chest and as he cart-wheeled, he took the legs from under from the Australian horse Logician. Six others turned over, among them Paris Pike carrying Richard Guest, last year’s winning jockey. “He jumped it perfect,” said Richard afterwards, “but he just didn’t handle the landing. That’s Aintree.”
But it’s brutal. Six others, including Ireland’s Alexander Banquet at Becher’s, had been claimed by the time they made it to the Canal Turn. The smoke cleared now as usual. The Last Fling and Supreme Charm led with Blowing Wind and the other surviving fancies all foot perfect until the white blazed Beau somehow “missed” completely and buried Carl Llewellyn at the 14th. But even without a jockey he would still be a big player when he came round again.
Beau led them riderless over The Chair right in front of us. Twelve months ago he had led the field before pulling the reins over his head. He was a horse with a mission. The Last Fling and Supreme Charm accompanied him out onto the second circuit. But it was Beau, on the loose, who had fate in his hooves.
By Becher’s Supreme Charm and The Last Fling were starting to weaken. At the Canal Turn The Last Fling crashed heavily. The green screens were erected. He had run brilliantly. Over eight years he has won 14 races. But now on this day at Aintree, the vet had to reach for the humane killer. The Last Fling lived up to his name.
Bindaree was the new leader. Jim Culloty’s ominously-still green silks were making a mockery of some pundit’s dismissals. The grey shape of What’s Up Boys was outside him, Tony McCoy’s blue silks on Blowing Wind were threatening as were Paul Carberry’s pink on Ad Hoc and Timmy Murphy’s scarlet on David’s Lad.
But Ad Hoc was a blunderer. Four fences from home, the last big ditch, he came down when going best of the pursuers and was joined by David’s Lad, Spot Thedifference and Djeddah. Bindaree remained the leader, What’s Up Boys the challenger, Kingsmark behind them, but the real problem was the loose horse to the left. Beau had been denied last year’s National. This time, jockey or no jockey, he had a role still to play.
It was Bindaree he bothered. At the second last Culloty came wide to avoid him, and Johnson gained ground. At the final fence What’s Up Boys looked the stronger and the loose horse lunged right cramping Bindaree’s style. The run-in of 465 yards beckoned. Beau now galloped mercifully left to exit the stage as the jockeys headed right to avoid the railed-off Chair. The closing, gasping, whip-smacking, head-thrusting drama could begin.
Richard Johnson will agonize over the video. He and What’s Up Boys had been through the ride of the lifetime. His horse is a finisher, his was this National to take. Head down, arms pumping, he took it. As they rounded the obstacle, What’s Up Boys was ahead. But this was Aintree. This was the most unforgiving run-in ever invented.
This was where so many had been caught before. This in 1956 is where Devon Loch and Dick Francis made their “phantom” jump and became the most famous losers of all. This now was where the strain took the rhythm of What’s Up Boys gallop and rolled him to the right.
“I was beat before the elbow,” Jim Culloty admitted afterwards. But here was a chance to re-battle. A tired horse loves a rail to run on. You can drive him and his sweat-stained eyes have something to steer. Culloty threw everything at the chesnut horse beneath him. Bindaree stretched his neck and answered. The 2002 Grand National changed shape.
It was cruel but there can only ever be one winner. On the day one horse and rider just out-ran the other. As the first two fought out their final moments, Blowing Wind thundered past third and with much honour. Tony McCoy looked left to see the finish on the big screen. This week he had already put his name in legend. But the Grand National will have to wait.
Twenty minutes later, the three principals walked round outside the dope test stable block. Leading Bindaree, Sam Wood was a young woman in almost ecstasy but alongside What’s Up Boys and Blowing Wind, Katie Ashworth and Julie Mortlock were almost equal images of happiness. They had lived for this day and their horses. They had been taken to the moon and back. The Grand National is the most brutal of ordeals for those closest to the animals. But it is a challenge that must be overcome.
Seeing Sam and Katie and Julie suddenly made you think of a lady rather older. She was tough. She cared more than anyone for horses. But she, too, loved and never shirked a challenge. The Queen Mother’s racing legacy was carried with glory yesterday.