Aintree claimed its fifth horse of the current meeting yesterday as the National fences continued a grim run.
Toni's Tip was the motionless victim after the first fence of the John Hughes Chase, yet another runner to succumb from spinal injuries. "It was just one of those things," Ferdy Murphy, the gelding's trainer, said. "He just made a slight mistake and went to save himself. He was a really good jumper who must have fiddled two or three hundred fences in his time."
Even Flow fell at the same obstacle and he too looked a pathetic figure as he struggled to his feet. The 11-year-old, who ran in the Grand National-winning colours of Rough Quest, was transported to the stables where he was later said to be recovering.
The Aintree executive consider that speed to the first fence may be a contributary factor to their course's accident rate. Before yesterday's race jockeys were told to "go steady" on the long approach to the initial obstacle. They were also briefed on what to do in case of a fence having to be bypassed. "The first fence is a small fence, as you know, but I suppose there is always a possibility that the first fence puts them more at risk than others," Charles Barnett, the Aintree managing director, said.
The reality is, however, that when the runners line up for this afternoon's big race they will do so against a quite alarming backdrop. There has been a fatality in each of the last four races over the National course at this meeting. Last year, Eudipe was a victim in the National itself and Gris D'Estruval perished in the John Hughes Chase before that.
The human victim of yesterday's John Hughes was Norman Williamson, who was forced to give up his remaining rides following the sprawling exit of Supreme Charm. He is, though, expected to partner Mely Moss in the National this afternoon.
It was a hurtful end to a card which had amply advertised the Irishman's qualities. Williamson punched the ears off High Game to win the novices' chase, just after a less exhausting effort on Direct Route in the Melling Chase.
Direct Route was nowhere to be seen for much of the Grade One contest as he was camouflaged at the back of the field. Makounji blasted away at the other end of proceedings, as the bulky shape of Flagship Uberalles coasted in mid-division. His stars and stripes colours were unfurled as the battery set off down the far side, but a shuddering collision with the fence which twice almost accounted for See More Business the previous day abruptly ended his challenge. The stuffing was soon coming out of the Flagship's seams and he was pulled up.
Direct Route sauntered his way to the front to win this race for the second consecutive year and gain compensation for his narrow defeat by Edredon Bleu in the Queen Mother Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival. "He really deserved that," Howard Johnson, his Co Durham-based trainer, said. "I have always said that he is the best two-and-a-half-mile chaser in the country and he has proved it here.
"Three times this season Norman has come back and said he had them beat, at Exeter, in the Tingle Creek and at Cheltenham, but this time he has beaten them fair and square.
"We will enter him for Punchestown but I expect that it will be out to the field with the green grass for him. He is nine coming 10 and we want him for next season. When you don't have too many stars you have to look after them."
Johnson recalled a brush with the greatest racing star of them all when, in an earlier life, he rode on this course as an apprentice with Arthur Stephenson. Among his rivals that day was a tall skinny chap who went by the name of Lester Keith Piggott.
Punters who take early morning prices from bookmakers today on the Grand National face the irritating possibility of up to two 5p in the pound Rule 4 deductions from winning bets if both Young Kenny and Red Marauder are declared non-runners. Only the Tote (who go 16-1) will make no 5p stoppage if Young Kenny defects, whereas only the Tote and Coral (who both go 16-1) will not be making the same deduction if Red Marauder fails to go to post. Punters should note that Rule 4 deductions are levied on winnings, not the original stake.