Racing: Katarino can rise to unique demands of Aintree

Grand National meeting opens with amateur riders risking their necks over the forbidding fir and spruce fences
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The Independent Online

Cheltenham can bang on all it wants about its history, but that will not alter the fact that when the first Gold Cup was run, there were already 82 Grand Nationals in the formbook. When the big-race heritage card is played, it is the Liverpool suburb, not the rolling Cotswold amphitheatre, that holds the call in spades.

Cheltenham can bang on all it wants about its history, but that will not alter the fact that when the first Gold Cup was run, there were already 82 Grand Nationals in the formbook. When the big-race heritage card is played, it is the Liverpool suburb, not the rolling Cotswold amphitheatre, that holds the call in spades.

Of course, when Lottery won the first National in 1839, Aintree, six miles out from the city centre, was rather more countrified than it is today; the natural streams, stone walls, ploughed fields and hedges of the East Lancs farmlands had not yet been replaced by the urban sprawl and high-rise blocks that now dominate the landscape.

Right from the start, the venue and the big race caught the public imagination, despite the then, as now, impossibility of viewing the sport in its entirety from ground level. But nonetheless the spectacle - a big field of crack riders and horses; Lottery, the favourite, beat 16 rivals - promised thrills and drama and thousands flocked to the course by road, rail, canal and on foot. House parties were held at the great country seats, like Knowsley and Croxteth and at the other end of the scale hostelries were reported as fleecing guests, cramming them in at four to a bed. No change there then.

Even in the early years the Aintree challenge was perceived as unique. The race that started life as the Grand Liverpool was a genuine cross-country contest; the only running rail was from the last fence to the finish and no rider was to "open a gate or go through a gateway, or ride more than 100 yards along any road, footpath or driftway".

The two brooks to be negotiated were fearsome; the first had been dammed to make it eight feet wide, with a four-foot timber fence set back the same distance on the take-off side, to be jumped out of heavy plough and with a drop of over three feet to the landing. The bold Captain Becher, one of the foremost daredevils of his day, christened it at the first time of asking.

And 166 years on, the attraction remains of watching the thoroughbred, an athlete created solely by man for man's pleasure, take on what are still the most daunting obstacles in the world. Quite rightly, the Aintree fences have been modified beyond measure but still have the power to serially exhilarate, terrify, reward and even sadden. On Saturday, 80,000 watchers at Aintree and 600 million on television worldwide will have their emotions stretched.

Today, the first to have a go over the famous course will be amateurs. In the Fox Hunters' Chase, won 12 months ago by this year's National fancy Forest Gunner and in the past by National winners Merryman and Grittar, 28 men and two women will suspend their day jobs to risk their necks. Punting involvement must be strictly for fun too, with Katarino (3.45), whose 20-year-old rider Sam Waley-Cohen is a student of politics at Edinburgh University, looking a worthy favourite.

Aintree is the natural progression in the calendar after Cheltenham, with 13 graded races scheduled in three days, and a host of high-class performers coming on from the Festival, including the best chaser in training, Moscow Flyer, who will face five rivals in tomorrow's Melling Chase.

Today's fencing feature is also over the conventional Mildmay course, the three mile, one furlong Grade Two chase inaugurated 21 years ago as a Gold Cup consolation. In a fascinating renewal three who ran in the Gold Cup meet again: Sir Rembrandt (third), Grey Abbey (fifth) and last year's winner of this race, Tiutchev (pulled up). First Gold, the hero here in 2001 and 2003, attempts to prove he is not past his sell-by date; new two-and-a-half mile champ Thisthatandtother steps up in trip; troubled Our Vic tries to redeem a lost reputation; and the high-class hurdler Crystal D'Ainay makes an ambitious debut over birch in this country.

Running round a flat, left-handed track on softish ground seems ideal for Grey Abbey (2.35) and the decision of his trainer, Howard Johnson, to bypass the National with the bold-jumping 11-year-old, who is likely to be racing for the last time, can be rewarded.

The right choice may also have been made for tough, versatile Rule Supreme (2.00), the Cheltenham stayers' championship third who avoids Grey Abbey & co in the chase in favour of the opening long-distance hurdle. Ground eased by yesterday's rain may enable Cerium (3.10) to turn Triumph Hurdle tables on Faasel in the Grade One juvenile contest, Mephisto (4.55) cannot be opposed in the novices' event and Kadount (4.20) can make his first venture into handicap-chase company a winning one.

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