Nearly a year on from one of the worst days at Aintree in the memory of most people (excepting, presumably, the Mason family, Richard Guest and the massed ranks of the bookmaking profession), there is the promise of happier times as the historic track, so incongruously situated in an unlovely north Liverpool suburb, opens its gates today at the start of the build-up to the 155th running of the Grand National.
The sun is out, the grass covering the springy turf has been mowed to its requisite 90mm, and the weather is set fair for the weekend. Neither are the clouds of foot-and-mouth hovering over the sport; the Cheltenham Festival took place as scheduled and the National meeting can serenely rest in its allotted place in the calendar, with reputations to be confirmed, scores to be settled and consolations earned.
There will be regrets in the air for the Queen Mother, of course, and a minute's silence each day. The main grandstand bears her name and although it is something of an understatement to say the place was never really lucky for her, it is through Devon Loch and her dignity after his collapse in that bizarre National of 1956 that she will forever be part of the Aintree pageant.
For similarly dramatic reasons, so will Red Marauder. Along with the Liver birds in their stilettos and disco frocks, the meeting is always targeted by animal-rights activists, some of whose legitimate concerns have led to the welcome and marked improvements in safety for man and beast over the unique National fences. It may be an unpalatable fact but injury and death are part and parcel of racing, the price the individual thoroughbred pays for the existence of the breed, and jumping is an arena fraught with risk.
But the risks should be acceptable and for all that the old-timers bang on about the emasculation of the course the old-style obstacles were traps.
Conditions last year turned the course into one vast snare, escaped by only four out of 40. It was not pleasant to watch horses struggling to jump out of a swamp, hitting fences half-way up that they would normally have cleared spring-heeled, disappearing in a welter of limbs and spruce. When the Aintree authorities, who are more aware than most of the huge responsibility horse welfare brings, so nearly shot themselves in the foot it was only by the grace of fortune that they were not shooting horses too. Getting home safely after a night in the pub does not make drink-driving acceptable.
Human nature being what it is, though, last year's débâcle will probably ensure record viewing figures throughout the meeting. Neither did it put anyone off entering this year's race and the unprecedented oversubscription has had the owners and trainers of some of the fancied horses – notably one-time favourite Moor Lane – walking their boxes. The safety limit is 40; a record total of 71 will remain until this morning's final declaration stage.
Several of those likely to miss the cut are also entered in tomorrow's Topham Chase over one circuit of the National course. Another, the well-backed outsider Gunner Welburn, has been left in this afternoon's Fox Hunter Chase, the first race of the week over the big fences, as insurance. He needs four to come out of the National to get a run on Saturday and his connections will keep their balls in the air until the last minute.
The first definite National defection came yesterday at Ludlow when luckless Jamie Goldstein, due to partner one of the market movers Bindaree, broke his leg in a fall. And on the equine front the new hurdles champion Hors La Loi III may not be able to confirm his status in Saturday's Aintree Hurdle. James Fanshawe's gelding returned from exercise on Newmarket Heath yesterday morning a little stiff in his hind legs. His fans will know their fate sometime this morning.
The dry weather on Merseyside has meant that the tracks on the hurdle and Mildmay courses have been lightly watered ahead of today's classy card. The going is officially good and while the National course is good to soft in places ("In tremendous nick, perfect jumping ground", said Aintree managing director Charles Barnett) it, too, may need the attention of the sprinklers to maintain that description. The lightening ground may be the key to today's chasing feature. Four of the six runners in the Martell Cup took part in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the splendid 12-year-old See More Business, in third place, did best of them and won this race two years ago. But a chance is taken that Lord Noelie (2.35) can finally, given his favoured underfoot conditions, earn the victory that his undoubted but fragile talent deserves.
Given that four Triumph Hurdle also-rans who have appeared since Cheltenham have notched two wins and two seconds between them, it seems fair to assume that its form is solid and that Newhall (4.20) can confirm the worth of her second place at the expense of Sud Bleu. The handicaps are trappy, but TANGO ROYAL (nap 3.10) makes appeal in the two-mile Red Rum Chase after an eye-catching run over farther at Cheltenham. The Pipe stable can complete a treble with L'Epicurien (4.50) and Classified (next best 5.20).