National gesture of defiance: no buzz, but very British

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The 150th Grand National went ahead at Aintree yesterday, 48 hours late, two horses short and with one vital element of the world's greatest steeplechase missing: the buzz.

But in a gesture of defiance to the IRA, a larger-than- expected turnout of more than 20,000, including the Prime Minister, arrived at Aintree to watch Lord Gyllene, ridden by Tony Dobbin, cruise home at 14-1.

The Liverpool course was swamped by more than 500 police officers and 300 security guards. Cars were banned and racegoers given bodysearches at the turnstiles. The "spirit of the blitz" atmosphere was given added poignancy by the Gurkhas' military band.

John Major, who made an unscheduled visit by helicopter, said: "The whole of the British nation and people around the world wish to see this race run and wish to indicate to people you cannot stop a great national sporting institution like the British Grand National." Earlier, the Princess Royal had been driven onto the course to cheers from the stands.

But the usual carnival atmosphere of National day was constrained as the crowds were watched by security staff. Police asked people to cast a suspicious eye over the punter standing next to them as part of a policy of "continuous search".

Bookmakers said they had never known a National like it. "Come on, let's have a bit of jollity," William Price, one of a small number of bookies, implored punters. Peter O'Sullevan, commentating on the race for his 50th and final time, said: "It is less charismatic. A certain amount of drama always associated with it has been dissipated by this painful interim."

The trainer Jenny Pitman, seen weeping on television when the race was stopped on Saturday, said: "We all pull together when the going gets tough." The crowd was allowed in free and many were more interested in showing solidarity against the terrorists than in backing the winner. "We came back to prove a point," Chris Stock of Macclesfield said. "It's part of the British resolve not to be intimidated."

Terry White, pushing his eight-month-old daughter Jade in a pram, said: "I came because it was free, I wanted to see the horses in the flesh and show the IRA we won't be beaten."

William Haggas, who trained the 1996 Epsom Derby winner Shaamit, said: "I have never been here before and felt it was important to show team spirit."

Sport pages 26 & 28