SUNDAY TIMES SPORT
GRAND NATIONAL 2013
There was a new tone to the usual roar of the Grand National. We heard it after the finish, after the commentator called all 40 runners clear at Bechers, and we heard it first when the whole field got clean away at the start. It was the roar of relief.
After an equine fatality on each of the first two days of the meeting it is little exaggeration to say that this National was on trial for its life. To have all 40 horses and riders come home without injury, to have that trouble free start and only two actual falls in the whole four and a half mile, thirty fence journey, has to be hailed as a spectacular justification of the adjustments that the authorities have made to the course in the last two years.
But don’t doubt there was tension, as much tension down at the start as at any time in the great race’s one hundred and seventy years of history. The jockeys circled, goggles down, thirty nine young men and one woman old before their time as they set their faces for their own tilt for immortality. But it was not only the jockeys. It felt as if the whole game was in the balance.
Only on Friday we had to hang our heads in shame as two shambolic false starts disfigured the the Topham Chase over the Grand National fences and then the normally reliable Little Josh broke his shoulder at the 15th fence and euthanasia was the only option. Another shambles in front of the 600 million worldwide audience would be unthinkable. But these were riders with the faraway look that only National starts can give. Ruby Walsh’s friendly eyes were cold behind the goggles. His sister Katie was the top half of the centaur aboard Sea Bass. Tony McCoy was hard set and ready. The official plan was that they would turn some twenty yards away from the tape, walk some five yards and then set off. Many on Friday mocked its chances. It worked a treat.
So too did the idea of a new, more forgiving plastic rather than wooden core to the fences, and of having the start some ninety yards closer to the first fence to allow less time for horses to get so flat out in their gallop that the opening fence can be their final one. For every one of them cleared it and at a pretty frightening rate of knots, but the real key to what lay ahead came at the third, the massive guard rail fronted ditch which has taken many people out over the years including this writer on three occasions.
Up in front Across The Bay was already giving young Henry Brooke a ride to tell his grandchildren but when he got to the third he hit it hard and low enough to turn him over in years gone by. But it didn’t. Sure it checked his momentum and brought out a big clump of spruce but the horse stayed upright. It probably taught him a lesson.
That pattern continued and it was surely significant that only Tatenen who gave Andrew Thornton a brute of a fall at the 12th and On His Own who crumpled under Ruby Walsh with five to jump, actually turned over. Six other jockeys suffered the normally humiliating affix of “unseated rider”, but the fact that these included the likes of Fehily, Geraghty and McCoy strongly suggest that they were the victims of velocity jolting mistakes which would normally cause a capsize but in these instances just wrenched them from their saddles.
None more so than McCoy ‘dismounting’ from Colbert Station at The Chair Fence in front of the grandstands. He was in the middle of the thirty three strong pack which came thundering towards us but instead of spring-heeling over he ploughed so low and hard through this, the largest obstacle on the track that he seemed to be doing a one horse wrecking job. But Colbert Station did not fall. He came out the other side in a shuddering jolt of foliage and even McCoy’s prehensile legs could not say either side of his swaying saddle.
It seemed too good to last, but last it did. The leaders came battling up the straight with Auroras Encore giving Ryan Mania and Harvey and Sue Smith their rightful moment of history but as the final stragglers came over the line there was the worried run back up to the collecting area to hear if all had actually been well out in the distance. Don’t forget that only a year ago the thrill of Neptune Collonges winning the closest ever National was soon sullied by the news that two horses, including Gold hero Synchronised, were no more.
But this time there were no bad tidings. Relief could be in the roar yet reality demands that none of us start hailing a new era featuring the ultimate sporting oxymoron of a “safe Grand National”. This will remain the most demanding as well as the most celebrated of steeplechases. Accidents will happen, injuries and even fatalities will occur as they always will when you accept the challenge of galloping half a ton of racehorse at five foot of fencing. But yesterday has proved that sensible consultation and adjustment can make the penalties less severe without losing the daunting nature of the task.
The Grand National does not need reviling, it deserves respect.