Racing: The fence of joy and despair

The Grand National: Last Fling's fate throws victory into harsh perspective

There is only one prime suspect in the unravelling of the Grand National plot. Last year, the chief villain with the sloppy going as its accomplice was the Canal Turn fence. It was here that Paddy's Return cried enough and unseated his jockey, running along the fence in search of a nice hot bath. In so doing he distracted several companions helping in great part to eliminate the field down to two finishers, and two re-mounts.

There is only one prime suspect in the unravelling of the Grand National plot. Last year, the chief villain with the sloppy going as its accomplice was the Canal Turn fence. It was here that Paddy's Return cried enough and unseated his jockey, running along the fence in search of a nice hot bath. In so doing he distracted several companions helping in great part to eliminate the field down to two finishers, and two re-mounts.

Yesterday, in conditions so polar opposite to last year that it seemed as though the seasons had been reversed, the Canal Turn again attracted an eager crowd of spectators – it has its own grandstand – eager to see if this was to be the fence that changed the course of the race yet again.

The fence itself is innocent enough – five-foot high perfectly straight across. What lies beyond is the snag. For, rather like a Scalextric set that has lost one curve this part of the Aintree circuit has two straight bits joining together to form a 90-degree turn. With the running rails realigned since last year's turmoil, the hope was that horses would not bunch or baulk as the riders angled them over the fence, trying to reduce the effect of the corner. Going straight over the fence means at best losing 20 to 30 lengths, at worst a collision with the Liverpool Leeds Canal.

The Canal Turn is the last of three key and historic fences that challenge the runners at the apex of the course with the main stands almost a blur in the distance. First Becher's, then Foinavon, scene of the 1967 mayhem and then the Canal Turn – a formidable trio of obstacles for any horse.

In the build-up to the race, it was possible to hear skylarks singing as well as a funfare blaring out noise but once the Tannoy announced the off, a muffled roar rolled across the course and engulfed our corner. The spectators on the grass banks stiffened and listened for the thunder of hooves. Into the breeze came the field arching over Becher's and turning almost before they could recover their balance.

Ironically, it was the old brigade doing the business in style at this stage, with the 12-year-old The Last Fling soaring over Canal Turn, with the 10-year-old Supreme Charm and two 11-year-olds Mely Moss, and Celibate for company.

Although there were no obvious casualties first time around, the half-dozen loose horses that were left milling around the Canal Turn's cul-de-sac were testimony to a hard race in progress. The New Zealand-bred Logician, now without his pilot Mark Bradburne, looked confused and disoriented as he ran around looking for escape before he was recaptured safely. Silence fell as the crowd waited for the field to come round again.

Within what seemed a short time the rapidly diminishing field headed down towards the Canal Turn for the final time, as the 24th fence it had now become a beacon of imminent victory with only six left to jump. And so it proved, with Jim Culloty expertly steering Bindaree over the angle of the fence in precise fashion despite the attention of two loose horses jumping alongside him. What's Up Boys followed close behind, starting the breathless chase that was to deliver such a pulsating finish to the great race.

Bindaree kicked on towards racing immortality, but as the strugglers arrived the first circuit leader The Last Fling took a crashing fall through the top corner of the fence hitting the grass with an almighty thump and bringing a funereal pile of spruce down upon himself. He tried to struggle to his feet but as the vets and the animal welfare teams drew close, it did not look too good for Sue Smith's horse.

However, intense patience and care were shown to the horse in an all-out, but ultimately vain attempt to save him.

Meanwhile up on the giant screen, Jim Culloty was leading back his second major winner within a month. Triumph and tragedy lay cheek by jowl at the Canal Turn.

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