Aintree aftermath: Marooned in misery by the Mersey

Racegoers get that morning after feeling. Stan Hey and Louise Jury report
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The Independent Online
They would normally have woken with a hangover and a pocket probably the lighter for a flutter on the horses.

But 2,000 Aintree racegoers, evacuated after the bomb alerts before Saturday's delayed Grand National, awoke yesterday morning, still wearing the previous day's clothes, in sport and leisure centres hurriedly commandeered as emergency accommodation.

Thousands more were scattered in hotels, while a lucky few were the recipients of Scouse hospitality as members of the public generously threw open spare rooms.

Instead of a hangover, the headache yesterday was whether or not they would be allowed back to the Liverpool course to collect the cars and the belongings they had been forced to leave behind.

A handful who arrived early at Aintree's main entrance were politely but firmly turned away.

The racecourse resembled a ghost town. Only the litter and the bookies' satchels lying where they had been dumped on the ground in the exodus were a reminder of the 60,000-strong crowd which had gathered the previous afternoon to see Britain's premier steeplechase.

As dawn broke yesterday, hundreds of police officers and sniffer dogs could be seen searching the course buildings, rubbish bins and flower boxes.

Others checked each of the estimated 7,000 vehicles which were trapped within the police cordon after the bomb warnings.

At 2.45pm Merseyside police finally opened the gates for people - who had to have identification - to be reunited with their cars and coaches. For some, it was more than 30 hours since they had parked their vehicles before heading off for a day's racing.

But when the words "operation Aintree" on the public- announcement system first signalled the emergency on Saturday afternoon, normal racing went out of the window.

For three hours after the evacuation began at 3.15pm, the crowds had milled around outside, waiting to be let back in. But at 6.30pm police used their "sky-shout" Tannoys attached to hovering helicopters to tell those below to "Go home. Your vehicles will not be released tonight."

A stableboy, Phil Sharp, managed to evade police and stayed to tend the 100 horses, some of which were distressed. He gave them all water before he, too, accepted orders to leave.

Police later relented and let the horses out after pleas from the RSPCA and Aintree officials. Most went home, though some were kept overnight at Haydock Park.

Arrangements for the humans were more complicated. As the weather deteriorated, with rain sweeping in, thousands began to disperse to seek rooms or to try and meet up with friends and family.

With road traffic cordoned off around the race course, the local railway line took much of the strain and racegoers crammed, Japanese-style, into carriages.

As with the evacuation itself, the trek into Liverpool was largely good- natured, although the long wait and an initial lack of information conspired with the realisation that hotel beds would not be easy to find to fray the most even of tempers.

At the Moat House, in Paradise Street, jockeys, still in their silks, milled around in the reception, hoping to find a friend with whom they could bivouac for the night.

Meanwhile, racegoers were told there was no room. Hotels many miles outside the city were contacted by telephone.

Racegoers returning to claim their cars from the 7,000 vehicles abandoned at the course faced more chaos yesterday.

Police initially imposed a 6pm deadline, after which unclaimed cars would be towed away but this was later moved back to midnight when it became clear it would be impossible to shift all the cars in just over three hours.

There was widespread confusion as people tried to discover which gates to go through to get their vehicles.

Nicola Brown, from Glasgow, had stayed the night in Manchester, only to face a further wait yesterday.

"This was my first visit to the National but we won't be able to stay for the race now. We have to head back to Glasgow tonight," she said.

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