The most precious picture of a racehorse tends to be the one taken by the judge's camera, determining the result of a photo-finish, but that might not have been the case at Aintree this year. Fortunately for the racing authorities, the undercover Sun reporter who obtained access to Hedgehunter's stable here on Thursday could last night be said to have forced a dead-heat at best.
True, he had managed to infiltrate the racecourse stable yard, by the simple ruse of following one of the runners off the track while carrying a horse blanket and a bucket and talking distractedly into his phone. And he had indeed got himself photographed with one of the Grand National favourites. But CCTV footage showed him having a long, innocuous chat with two employees of Willie Mullins, Hedgehunter's trainer - one of whom civilly acceded to his request of a picture of the equine celebrity who ran away with the race last year.
"It is very common that we get requests for a photograph to be taken with the horse," Mullins said. "It happens three or four times a day. People even drive into the yard at home and ask. So my staff considered what he was asking to be perfectly normal.
"Considering the amount of traffic, in both people and horses, security is very hard at a place like this. No matter what you do, it's impossible to keep everyone out. If someone wants to get in badly enough, you may not be able to stop them. That's why we bring extra people over when we have a runner like this, as additional security. He is accompanied throughout the day, until the stables are locked and everyone is thrown out."
Peter Webbon, director of the Horseracing Regulatory Authority, considered the stunt a hollow victory. "They have embarrassed us in the sense that he gained access to the yard," he said. "Obviously, we will review what might have been done differently to prevent him getting in. But while they shouldn't have been there in the first place, the CCTV has worked extremely well in that it would have given us the identity and movements of anyone who was up to no good."
There is nothing counterfeit about the menaces awaiting Hedgehunter today, starting with Clan Royal, the horse who adores Liverpool and is the working-class hero. He has won two lesser races over these formidable fences, and his admirers believe that with better luck he would be returning as another Red Rum, in search of a third National. Two years ago he was caught close home, his rider having dropped his whip and all but forgotten to switch on to the run-in after the final fence. Last year Clan Royal was clear going to Becher's Brook on the final circuit when loose horses changed direction and forced him off the track.
With Clan Royal out of the way, Hedgehunter came home an easy winner and last month he confirmed himself an authentic aristocrat by finishing second in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Entwined within this showdown is another, deep, rivalry: an unspoken pride and resentment that flavours a close friendship between two of the greatest jockeys in jumping history.
Clan Royal is ridden by Tony McCoy, whose addiction to winners has made him champion jockey 10 times. Unfortunately, their misfortune last year represented a callous twist of the knife for McCoy, whose CV in the National is singularly unimpressive. He has got round only twice in 10 attempts, including when remounting in the 2001 chaos.
Everyone knows that the National is too capricious to be the decisive measure of a rider. But McCoy is fully aware that his serial failures here are thought by some to expose a flaw in the gem. Those who feel that his dynamism is not ideal for Aintree discern subtler gifts in Ruby Walsh, who, of course, rides Hedgehunter.
Walsh has won the race twice, from just five attempts - on Papillon in 2000 and Hedgehunter last year. He pulled up his mount in 2003 after 21 fences, but both his other rides finished fourth. Those who look at the numbers accumulated by McCoy lazily salute him as without peer in the history of the sport, but it is by no means certain that he is even the best of his generation.
In the circumstances, the bookmakers who were yesterday predicting a tidal wave of support for Clan Royal should perhaps expect "the McCoy factor" to ensure that Hedgehunter goes off favourite instead.Reuse content