Saturday April 09 2022, 12.01am, The Times
Brough Scott says the Grand National is no longer an aloof spectacle, steeped in a time long gone
It’s not what it was but what it is that’s important. The Grand National is not the test it used to be but, in its present evocation, it is something better. It is an event that can be more warmly celebrated and more widely viewed than anything comparable on the globe.
In this ever-more motorised and mechanised century, it is surprising that the National should still be going 183 years since Captain Becher emerged from the now eponymous brook and said, “Water should never be taken without brandy.”
We have come a long, long way from that rarefied challenge for gallant and galloping gentry, wonderful tales, though, they hold for us.
One of my favourites is that of the 1883 winner, Count Charles Kinsky, who won on the mare Zoedone, whom he had bought the year before with the £1,000 he had won on the Cambridgeshire.
Count Kinsky was an attaché at the Austro/Hungarian Embassy, became Lady Randolph Churchill’s lover and so impressed her older son that the young Winston had a picture of Zoedone’s triumph on his study wall at Sandhurst.
Sam Waley-Cohen is the only amateur this afternoon and he is cut from slightly more serious cloth than Lady Churchill’s amour.
A 39-year-old married father of two, Waley-Cohen has built up an award-winning dental business while pursuing an outstanding career in the saddle, winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the King George VI Chase on Long Run, finishing second in the National on Oscar Time, and recording six victories over the Aintree fences. He will retire after riding Noble Yeats this afternoon, but as he lines up, not one of his rivals will boast a better record.
Today, there is rightly little place for the doomed no-hoper. Things have moved on since the poor old Duke of Albuquerque was carried into the next booth to me at Walton Hospital in 1965. He was 46 then and it was his third ride and third fall. Incredibly, he soldiered on for ten more years and four more disasters before the doctors finally called a halt.
We saw things differently back then, but the public mood was changing. The relish with which vertical falls would be featured in both the Press and the newsreels came to a very necessary halt in 1989, when the amateur-ridden Brown Trix was fatally injured after crashing into the Brook at Becher’s.
For a while, the authorities tried to soldier on with tighter regulations for horses and riders and tried to insist that the big drops on the fences down to Becher’s were all part of the challenge. But, to some purists’ dismay, and to now-proven race benefit, the drops have been removed, and while their green coating makes the fences look different, and the first open ditch and The Chair remain daunting obstacles, the course takes no more jumping than Newbury or Cheltenham.
With 40 runners and 30 fences, the Grand National is still the most special of all races for a jockey to win and riders still wish each other luck beforehand. But that’s more for the sense of occasion than the thought that a clear round would be a massive achievement. It remains, as do all steeplechases, a pretty challenging undertaking and the number of runners adds a lottery element much prized by owners and punters alike.
Sure, the past ten years have seen five winners for racing juggernauts like Michael O’Leary, JP McManus and the late Trevor Hemmings, but there have also been One For Arthur, Pineau De Re and Auroras Encore for one-off owners, the last a 66-1 Ilkley Moor triumph for Sue and Harvey Smith.
This year, the big hitters are still heavily represented with four runners each for McManus and O’Leary, but one of the main fancies is Snow Leopardess, who not only boasts 80-year-old Marietta Fox-Pitt as her owner and breeder, but would be the first winner to also have had a foal during a break in her racing career.
Further out in the betting but still worth an each-way flutter is the 2019 Ladbroke Trophy winner De Rasher Counter, who made a pleasing comeback after a year out and is owned by a small syndicate delighting in the name of the Makin’ Bacon Partnership.
The feeling of public acceptability has been more than matched by an infinitely deeper immersion in the local community. Time was when racing put up with, rather than revelled in, the location.
In the wrangles over ownership in the 1970s, it looked as if the event would struggle to survive and into this century there was still a sense of the tweed and trilby brigade slumming it for the sake of the occasion.
To travel up on the train from Liverpool Central yesterday was to see how that is very much no longer the case. “This is our race,” said a scouser, as he poured out with the crowd on the Ladies’ Day with all the vitality for which the city is famous.
Significantly, the first race of the afternoon was titled the “20 Years Together, Alder Hey and Aintree Hurdle”, celebrating two decades of association between the course and the renowned children’s hospital.
Yesterday, there was also “The Park Palace Ponies Handicap” to support the inner-city charity that uses an old Victorian music hall to give deprived kids the chance of the interest and activity that ponies can give.
There was a time when I thought that the Grand National was too steeped in the past, too aloof from its location to have hold of its future. I don’t feel that any more.
So, why not play your fancy and this year, few could match the tale of Fortescue’s rider, Hugh Nugent.
His great, great grandfather of the same name would have ridden the 1903 winner Drumcree, but for a broken collar bone from which he recovered only to be killed in a hurdle race later that year in Ostend.
Fortescue was a last-minute qualifier, but he won last time out and victory would be the echoes of the past landing the challenges of today — not a bad metaphor for the National itself.
However, while I think Delta Work may outclass them, my pin hopes for a lucky streak from De Rasher Counter.
Brough Scott’s top four
1 De Rasher Counter
3 Good Boy Bobby