A great day dawned with brandy, but ended a wake

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The Independent Online
Nobody could have foreseen this: the one day of the year where sport permeates every household in Britain being so catastrophically disrupted by terrorist action. From schoolchildren with their love of horses, to office "sweeps", to housewives sticking a pin into the racing pages, the Grand National exerts a hold on our popular consciousness like no other event. The question everyone will now be asking is, can it ever be the same again?

The day had started in true festival style with free bacon sandwiches and coffees laced with the Grand National sponsors' brandy, as a clutch of early birds defied the cold wind to watch the traditional workout of the National horses on a stretch of the course from the start down to the Melling Road.

Despite warnings of a terrorist attack voiced in certain newspapers last week nobody at the course could have believed that this day would turn into one of National mourning. The two days racing prior to yesterday had produced record crowds. By lunchtime an estimated 60,000 racegoers had assembled at the Aintree course to celebrate the 150th running of the great race.

A marching band of Scots Guards played jaunty music to welcome the fans and at 1.20pm the Princess Royal unveiled a bronze bust of BBC commentator Peter O'Sullevan, known to all in racing as The Voice, who was about to embark on his 50th and final commentary on the race before his retirement.

With the two main stands, the Queen Elizabeth II and the County, not to mention the vast corporate hospitality enclosures, packed to the brim, the Aintree course was set for a festival day. Ironically, the regular protests of animal rights activists, who had created some of the disruption which caused the abandonment of the 1993 race after two false starts, had not been much in evidence and racing began on time at 1.45, with an estimated 400 million television viewers around the world settling down for this afternoon of spectacle.

With the first three races going to long price outsiders, punters had already suffered a shock, but just as the build-up to the big race had begun the first ominous warning came over the public address system.

"Commence Operation Aintree!" was the message. Bewildered racegoers gradually began to take heed and as police and security guards moved in to usher the crowds out of the grandstands and bars, a terrible silence fell on the course.

The process of evacuation took a good three-quarters of an hour, as first the racecourse buildings and marquees and then the car-parks were cleared. Within an hour came news of the inevitable abandonment of yet another Grand National.

The bitter irony of this disruption, of course, is that this is a day welcomed as passionately in Ireland as it is in Britain. What began as a celebration ended as a wake.