SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST IN EPIC BATTLE

8 April 2001

Horses and jockeys go tumbling in an extraordinary race at Aintree which saw only four brave finishers

To the very limit. That’s where men and horses were asked to go in this most eventful of all the Grand Nationals. And afterwards you could feel the price of it.

Red Marauder came out early from the winner’s circle but the staggers were upon him. His long lean neck was twisted round awkwardly as he tried to get the oxygen in. He is a horse who has had this problem before. After the greatest endurance test in living or any other memory, things looked little short of desperate.

At his head was the towering 6ft 7in grey-suited figure of Mark Cobb, who has travelled him many times for the Norman Mason stable. Cobb knew that just water and movement were needed for the moment to pass. Two vets and four attendants were already on hand to throw buckets over Red Marauder’s narrow chestnut withers and across that hungry, greyhound rib cage.

The neck still screwed right as Mark dragged him round the black muddy patch of the stable yard. We had already supped full of drama. Watching eyes wondered if this could be the horror to end it all.

But Mark was right. More water was applied. Gradually the angle of the neck and the rhythm of the walk returned to normal. “He just needs a few minutes,” said Mark, “he was worse than this after the Hennessy, he’s an extraordinary animal.”

At last we could breathe again and begin to wonder if the absolutely extraordinary race in which he had triumphed should have been run at all.

Winning jockey Richard Guest had been in no doubt beforehand. “It’s diabolical,” he had told Graham Thorner as the 1972 victor collected his annual slate of National jockeys’ autographs. “These are absolutely terrible conditions. We should not be sending horses out there.”

But out he went and once there set the oldest but cutest – into mention most cussed – brain in the weighing room into overdrive. To attempt this 30-fence 4½ mile ordeal, survival had to be paramount. Survival when you have 40 fired-up horses thundering headlong away across the Melling Road is no easy guarantee. But survival and shrewdness are what 35-year-old Richard Guest are all about.

In an earlier life, he rode Shergar in gallops at Newmarket. In 1989, he won the Champion Hurdle on Beech Road. Five years ago, he went north to ride and train for Norman Mason and his ultra quiet “look-after-the-horse-at-all-costs” style got the Stewards increasingly on his back. After being hauled in at Perth three years ago he threw his saddle away in disgust and declared his riding days were over.

This National was the crowning glory of his change of mind and the ultimate justification for his long-leathered, body-coiled technique. Red Marauder only lasted to the sixth fence in last year’s Aintree marathon. The rain-sodden ground must have put a foot of extra effort into each of the obstacles yesterday. Every sort of unscripted (and un-weather-related) eventuality was poured on to the pile. A terrible mistake four fences out was only the last of a series of Red Marauder blunders. “But he’s a survivor,” said Richard Guest, “even if he must be the worst jumper ever to win a National.”

So should it have been run?

Walking round in the sluicing rain beforehand with water filling the deep divots from the day before was to have one’s doubts. How much more of a downpour should any patch of grass, even the most hallowed of all in racing, endure? The nervous part of the soul counselled cancellation. But the firmer part asked “why not?”

For if you were to cancel the Grand National because it was too difficult you are in danger of banning climbing the Matterhorn because it is too steep. What was evident yesterday was that the conditions would be uniquely challenging. You asked yourself whether it was a challenge that could be met.

“Of course it could,” Carl Llewellyn said beforehand. As rider of both Party Politics and Earth Summit to National triumph, and at 35 only junior to Richard Guest in the weighing room, Llewellyn’s is no “gung-ho” opinion. “If we look after them,” he added, “horses will jump round here all right. The trick is to just hunt them for as long as possible.”

How ironic that it was Llewellyn and Beau who were going best of all of the eight who had survived the various loose-horse tribulations and set out on the second circuit. And that his “reins-over-the-head” drama two fences later was as bizarre an incident as Aintree has ever seen. Carl already has quite a library of thrilling videos but with a stiff drink or two he will live long into his dotage, wondering how he jumped two more National fences with both reins on the wrong side of the neck after Beau had whipped them out of his hands with a blunder at that blunder 18th.

Over the last few days, racing has seemed an increasingly beleaguered island of sport. Many still carp at its continuation during the foot and mouth crisis despite overwhelming virological evidence that, with precautions (far greater at Aintree that at any football or other major gathering in the land), a race meeting represents no threat to the spread of this appalling disease.

The Grand National was supposed to be a spring revival. For three days it seemed more a monsoon. But the great race remains the ultimate mountain. Yesterday, it had never seemed so steep. Only two got there without mishap but no horse, and only one jockey, was hurt in the attempt. They had reached the limit – in the slowest National since 1883 – but it had been a risk worth taking.

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