Brian Viner: Masters of drama take their places on grand stages of Aintree and Augusta
It is defeat, sometimes, which enters your name in the annals
Saturday 08 April 2006
The greatest sporting contests are those with the capacity to deliver storylines so improbably dramatic that a writer of screenplays wouldn't dare submit them, for fear of being laughed at. Two of those contests, according to venerable tradition, are the Grand National and the US Masters.
So the years in which they fall on the same weekend, such as this one, are truly blessed. And of course there is the additional small matter of Manchester United v Arsenal, another contest that in recent years has rarely failed to deliver edge-of-the-seat excitement. Last season, as an unlikely bonus in the Old Trafford tunnel, it even delivered some pepperoni pizza.
So what, come Monday morning, will be the main stories of potentially this most dramatic of weekends? Will it be the story of United beating Arsenal and Chelsea coming a cropper at home to West Ham, to turn the Premiership back into a two-horse race?
Whatever, it's no accident that horse racing supplies the metaphor. Nor is it any accident that as sports writers grasp for precedents for a situation as unimaginable as Chelsea not winning the title, which itself is a situation so unimaginable that plenty of bookmakers have long since paid out, the one they keep seizing is the collapse of the Queen Mum's horse, Devon Loch, within sniffing distance of the Grand National winning post 50 years ago.
Last summer, I had the considerable pleasure of sitting next to the veteran thriller writer Dick Francis, at a Lord's Taverners lunch in a marquee somewhere in the Cotswolds. Francis it was, of course, who rode Devon Loch on that fateful day in the spring of 1956, and hard though I tried to think of something else to talk about, I kept returning to Aintree. The old boy, bless him, didn't seem to mind. Celebrated sporting losers rarely do mind talking about their banana-skin moment, at least not those with the sense to know that glorious failure is a surer way to immortality than humdrum success. Had he sailed on to win the Open at Carnoustie in 1999, Jean van de Velde would by now have been little more than the answer to a quiz question: who won the last Open of the 20th century? Or even not the answer to a quiz question: who was the first Frenchman to win the Open (Arnaud Massy, at Hoylake in 1907)? Instead, Van de Velde's name became almost as synonymous as Devon Loch with collapsing close to the winning post and the Frenchman was smart enough to cash in on the notoriety.
Victory in sport can inscribe your name on silver salvers and claret jugs - but it is defeat, sometimes, which enters your name in the annals. To what does George Foreman owe his popularity now, apart from his lean, mean grilling machine? To the fact that he was the loser in the "Rumble in the Jungle". With the disintegration of his reputation as the most ruthlessly awesome boxer alive, and a nasty bastard with it, came the burgeoning of a new reputation as a nice guy.
None of which is meant to suggest that to lose is better than to win. A Devon Loch-style collapse at the Augusta National in 1996 certainly did Greg Norman no favours, and while Roberto de Vicenzo won lots of friends with his gracious behaviour after mistakenly signing for a 66 instead of a 65 on the last day of the 1968 Masters - his 45th birthday - he doubtless would have preferred to win the Green Jacket. On the other hand, that would have denied golfing posterity one of its more charming quotes. "What a stupid I am," said De Vicenzo, after losing to Bob Goalby by a stroke, the margin of his accounting error.
So, to return to the burning question: what will be the dramatic sporting story on Monday morning? I know some people who look at the Grand National field for good stories and then place their bet accordingly, on the basis that the serendipity which seems to descend on Aintree every National day is more reliable than any form book. Moreover, it is worth remembering that not only is it half a century this year since Devon Loch, it is also a quarter of a century since Aldaniti, and Bob Champion. On that dubious logic a fairy tale seems almost preordained.
The greatest fairy tale, I suppose, would be Ginger McCain winning his last National as a trainer. Or Nina Carberry could become the first female winner on Forest Gunner. Or A P McCoy might win his first National, bagging J P McManus a first at the same time. Or last year's winner Hedgehunter could win the National after finishing second in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, a decade after Rough Quest did the same. On Monday I dined with two well-informed racing men, the BBC's racing correspondent, Cornelius Lysaght, and Simon Sherwood, the former jockey whose best finish in the National was third on The Thinker in 1989, the year he won the Gold Cup on Desert Orchid.
Cornelius tipped Cornish Rebel, Simon fancied Hedgehunter. Me, I'm not sure. All I know is that this sporting weekend will yield at least one great story, and that it will come from somewhere beginning with a vowel.
Who I Like This Week...
Gérard Houllier, whom I made rather a habit of lambasting while he was manager of Liverpool, not least because, as a supporter of cash-strapped Everton, I hated to hear him bleating on that he was only three players short of a championship-winning team, when, on the team he had, he had already spent the equivalent of a small African country's gross national product. All that said, he has clearly done a fine job with Lyon, who lead the French league and on Tuesday came within two minutes of knocking Milan out of the Champions' League. Only someone with a heart of ice, or perhaps one or two other Evertonians of my acquaintance, can have failed to feel sorry for Houllier, whose team deserved to put out last year's finalists and certainly didn't deserve to lose 3-1.
And Who I Don't
Hootie Johnson, the chairman of Augusta National, who has sanctioned changes to the hallowed Masters layout that have been criticised by two peripheral golfing also-rans by the names of Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. Johnson, at any rate, is treating them as also-rans in terms of the notice he seems to be taking of their remarks. Not even the sound of Bobby Jones rotating in his grave appears to disturb his conviction that Augusta needs protecting like a dainty Southern belle.
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