Racing: Aintree is haunted by memories of start fiasco

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The Independent Online

There will be glorious recollection at Aintree a week tomorrow, when the Grand National is run 30 years after Red Rum launched his legend at the expense of a gasping Crisp.

There will be glorious recollection at Aintree a week tomorrow, when the Grand National is run 30 years after Red Rum launched his legend at the expense of a gasping Crisp.

There is another anniversary though, another to raise the gasps, when we remember a decade ago and the incompetence of the void National. That was the day of the 150th running of the race, the afternoon of two false starts, broken tape and pandemonium.

The bête noire of the occasion became Ken Evans, the flag man who failed to wave his recall flag. A name better recalled, however, is that of the starter, Captain Keith Brown, who rather disturbed some of the combatants by eating an apple as the temple fell around him. He never officiated at another National.

Dignity never got going that Saturday but seven horses completed the course, led home by the other famous names from that day, John White and Esha Ness.

Capt Brown at one stage suggested the race could be re-run, with the nine beasts who had not jumped off a second time having it between themselves. Fortunately for him, Merseyside Police were well represented. He was later able to observe: "It was bound to happen one day and it just happened that I was in charge at the time."

There could even be some truth in his assertion as the subsequent Connell Report signposted several changes to the great race. The cancellation of the National was the most serious repercussion and there are now rules which make voiding less likely.

If all riders take an incorrect course, for example, but do not gain an advantage, a result can be allowed to stand. In addition, championship or major races can be re-run.

The "grey gate" at Aintree has been replaced by a new starting apparatus and, at major meetings, marker poles are installed 10 yards from the tape and riders must return there if instructed by the starter.

This though was was the arrangement for racing's latest if not so disastrous starting fiasco, when all but one of the riders in the Champion Hurdle were warned about their eagerness to get on with the race.

Simon Morant, the starter on that opening day of the Cheltenham Festival, seemed to want the Champion Hurdle field lined up like Tiller girls. The crowd, as well as the jockeys, grew restless.

The stewards later cautioned the riders and threatened to fine them in case of a repetition. Only Tony Dobbin on the bolted down Hors La Loi escaped censure.

The potentially ominous booking for next Saturday is that Morant, who has done the job for eight of the last nine Nationals, will again be on the rostrum. He should not look to David Nicholson for a commendation. "The Aintree starter Simon Morant," the former trainer once said, "couldn't start a race for white mice."

There are others without the hugest amount of confidence in the man. Michael Caulfield, the secretary of the Jockeys' Association, believes Morant should own up to his culpability at the outset of the Champion Hurdle.

"Whether it's the start of the Champion Hurdle or the Olympic 100m final there is a bit of tension. Jockeys, like athletes, are almost anticipating the start," Caulfield said yesterday. "Sometimes there is a breakdown or imbalance between the jockey and official. That is what happened at Cheltenham.

"The starter was fairly anxious and tense, and the jockeys were keen to get the best possible start. People say they have got two miles to sort themselves out so the start is not important. But it is. You can't be out of position or miss the pace of the race.

"It certainly wasn't a great start to that particular race. It was poor. The jockeys accepted their role in it and I think the starter must as well."

Now we must hope that was an isolated misjudgement. "The great variable here is that we're dealing with animals, not boats or cars," Caulfield added. "But it's not the most complicated thing in the world and there is not too much technique attached to it. It's purely about a relationship, a balance and respect. When that is slightly askew we've seen what can happen.

"It is the Jockey Club's responsibility to make sure they employ the right man on the right day. They have to pick the right team for the championship races."