There can never have been a better time to talk about risk than on the eve of the Grand National in the time of Covid. Tomorrow afternoon 40 horses and riders will carry the hopes of millions as they set off over the 30 fences and four hazardous miles of the Aintree course.
Meanwhile millions more will tie themselves in knots as they fret over the million-to-one chance of a bad outcome from the proven lifesaver that is the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. Who are the silly ones?
On the face of it those of us who have followed, bet, written and, in this case actually ridden in the event, can be accused of being heedless of our own and in particular of our horse’s safety. It is not something that should be taken lightly as the Grand National story shows. 100 years ago, when Shaun Spadah and the great Welsh rider Dick Rees were the first of just four finishers and the only one to do so without falling in the bog like conditions, the reactions were only of congratulation. When Red Marauder and Richard Guest did almost the same thing in 2001, there was a sizeable outcry against allowing the race to be run.
However, you only have to look at the old newsreels or to hear the tales to appreciate how much heeding there has been. Time was when there was a stone wall, a section of ploughed field and a hurdle on the seemingly endless 464 yard run-in. In the 1959 film of Oxo’s National, there’s nothing but upbeat “bad luck old boy” tone in the commentary as horses somersault fatally at Bechers. By the time I was one of the 19 fallers in the 47 starters 1965 race, the fences were less upright, and three more factors have filed the teeth of danger’s jaws.
The drops have been removed from the early fences. They used to make landing over the early fences seem like missing a stair in the dark. The wooden stakes in the heart of the fence have been replaced by plastic and, in an often un-noted improvement, space has been made for the loose horses to keep clear of the fences.
Of course, some of us can rail against the lessening of the challenge, the diminution of the achievement, some might even call up some of the more provocative “the world’s gone soft” words of Red Rum’s trainer Ginger McCain. But they need to remember that by the end Ginger often had his tongue in his cheek. Perhaps even when he said, “in the old days, jockeys were expendable. We didn’t call off meeting if one got hurt. We wrapped them up, slung them in the ditch, and buried them if they started to smell.”
The truth is that in many ways the race and Aintree itself is in better shape than it has ever been. Never forget that before Red Rum’s three victory and two second place tour de force in the 70s, the course was in serious danger of closure and even after him, parts of Liverpool were close to basket case. The course and its surroundings are very different now and, crucially the racetrack has allied itself with the area to ensure the city has taken what was often seen as a “County Set” outing to its own heart. How poignant that tragedy has taken from us Rose Paterson whose time as chairman was infused with inclusive charm.
Rose was a listener, racing has listened and the hope is that on this day the wider world can appreciate its strengths rather than concentrate on the worry and the whimsy. That applies especially in the role of women jockeys. Sure, it was an oddity when Charlotte Brew was the trail blazer and struggled round to the 28th in 1977, but the chances of Minella Times, 9-1, Yala Enki 33-1, and Sub Lieutenant 50-1 are reckoned on the horses’ ability not the gender of Rachael Blackmore, Bryony Frost or Tabitha Worsley.
Minella Times clearly has a tremendous chance and after her exploits at Cheltenham, Rachael would be taking herself into the stratosphere. But as TV came to understand, this is no giddy beginner but a talented 31-year-old graduate who uses a lot more mind than muscle and knows that the game can come up and bite you. As Rachael found to her cost on Thursday when Jason The Militant dumped her over the side when favourite and leading in the Aintree Hurdle.
With 40 runners not all the starters will complete the course. Some may even be injured and in the nature of things, it can even get worse. But the risks are far less than they were, the awareness much sharper of trainers and jockeys alike. These are not gung-ho idiots but skilled athletes facing the ride of their life. Veteran Tom Scudamore having his 19th ride on the favourite Cloth Cap, rookie Jack Tudor riding Potter’s Corner in the hope of being the first Welsh trained winner since Liverpudlian “Tich” Mason won on Kirkland way back in 1905. Potters Corner has already won the Welsh, the Midlands and even last year’s Virtual Grand National, so why not a clean sweep.
My vote is for Rachael and in the way she can show how we should not be risk averse. We should, as horses and jockeys are more than ever at Aintree, be risk ready. Risks are there to be taken especially if you or your money are galloping at them.