8 April 2007

Fear is the enemy. But on Saturday this applies more to the watchers than the watched. The Grand National is one of the great divides. Scores of millions of TV viewers hold their breath in terror. Jockeys just want to have their day soaring over those Aintree fences. “I think it’s a terrific race,” said Ruby Walsh on Thursday.

Of course, having won the National on Papillon in 2000 and Hedgehunter in 2005, Ruby is more entitled to think well of the race than anyone else around. What’s more he was talking at Paul Nicholls’ Somerset base after the presentation of the seven-figure Betfair Million cheque made possible by his exploits on Kauto Star. But the light in his eyes did not have pound signs in it. You see the same thing among the losers.

Above the leather and sweat debris of the post National Aintree changing room, a strange and wondrous euphoria glows. Sure, there are guys dwelling glumly on dreams so rudely broken, others worrying about mates who got a kicking, but across the whole the mood is exultant. You seek each other to tell of what happened. Again and again you get the refrain “what a ride he gave me”. You have touched again the jump jockeys’ ultimate inspiration. You and the horse and the fences and freedom. It’s what you are in the game for.

That’s why to really enjoy the National, the viewers should stoke up on adrenalin, not fear. Hiding behind the sofa is no way to start the 10 most dramatic minutes of the sporting year, yet to many that still seems the safest place. Last week, no less than 42 years on since my own unsuccessful (broken-collar bone at the 19th if you want to know) foray at Aintree fame, I was still introduced as someone who had tried the National journey. “Weren’t you terrified?” was still the question.

Sport should be kept in perspective. After the events of the past few days in Tehran and Basra, the over-the-top military metaphors should be avoided. What happens next Saturday is done in search of exhilaration, and its uncertainty is its excitement. Even the best trainers can find it impossible.

“It’s been a terrible race for me,” said Nicholls on Thursday. “I have tried all sorts of special things in the past, like dressing up the schooling fences, and it hasn’t done any good. This year I am going to relax and enjoy it.”

Granted that a “relaxed Paul Nicholls” at the races is something of an oxymoron, his attitude to his leading runners Eurotrek and Royal Auclair does have an engaging calmness about it. “Look what happened last year,” he said. “Royal Auclair had run a blinder to be second to Hedgehunter in 2005 and then goes and turns over at the first.”

When the subject turns to Eurotrek the conversation takes an almost surreal turn. “He’s had all sorts of problems,” said the trainer, “leg, heart, blood vessels the lot. But he’s got talent all right so you never know.” In fact Eurotrek has not run since last November but that was over the Aintree fences with Saturday’s jockey Liam Heard in the irons. The plan to go straight to the National was stated a long time ago and, come the day, Nicholls will be as competitive as the rest of them.

It will be the biggest challenge of Heard’s young life. Last year he got to the 19th on outsider Le Roi Miguel, his first National ride, but this is an altogether different opportunity. “I was really excited last year and Le Roi Miguel was brilliant,” said the 21-year-old. “But he didn’t have a great chance. Eurotrek is different. He gave me a great ride in the Becher Chase except for the second last and he has been in good form at home.”

But is there no fear factor for one of such comparatively tender years and, with just 49 winners so far, limited experience? “Ah no,” said Heard. “To ride in it last year was a dream and to be doing it again is terrific. You are much too excited to get frightened.”

We’ve heard that tone before. This year alone Walsh has, in England and Ireland combined, ridden 130 more winners than Heard has managed in his whole career. But there was no hint of weariness as Walsh outlined the thrill of riding Hedgehunter at Aintree.

“He can pull a bit,” he said of the horse whose recent preparation has been confined to just one warm-up effort in a two-mile hurdle. “But he has a great jump in him. From the start I like to go down the middle to inner. There are fewer fallers there. But I think it’s important to get away among the leaders, then you can try and steady up a bit as you come to the first. Because, Jeez, you can be trapping fast when you arrive there.”

On the brink of the unprecedented double of matching £2 million in prize money over here with euro2 million back home, Walsh had to hustle off to Wincanton to earn another £1,900 for a struggling third place in the splendidly named Axminster Carpets Somerset National. For him and for Heard it is all part of the same game. And of a challenge which reaches its peak when they put fear behind them next Saturday.

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