Grand National: Grief for Pitman as Band dies

GRAND NATIONAL: The death of two horses darkens an occasion when the frayed and the defiant march on Aintree: Mount of the race's youngest rider perishes after fall. Greg Wood reports

It is the question no one wants to ask as attention concentrates on the winner, but experience tells you that it will not be whether but how many. This year the answer was two.

Smith's Band and Straight Talk were the horses among the 36 setting out yesterday evening which did not return, and while the atmosphere around the top enclosure was pure party, the red eyes of Joe Tizzard - the 17- year-old rider of Straight Talk - told a very different story as he departed from the weighing room.

The most disturbing thought is that perhaps on an afternoon when many in the crowd were first-timers drawn in by free admission, the race escaped relatively lightly.

The previous steeplechase around Aintree, the two-mile race on Saturday named in honour of Red Rum, had left a disturbing trail of death and injury out on the track, as the runners had set off at a ridiculous pace and, one after another, succumbed to fatigue or errors.

As the big field lined up yesterday on rock-solid ground and with 48 hours worth of frustration on both sides of the bridle, a lunatic gallop to the first fence and beyond seemed sure to bring another dose of mayhem.

Strangely, though, the early stages saw most of the field jumping safely. It was only on the way back towards the grandstand that the adrenalin started to kick in, and with it the errors.

Straight Talk, trained in the West Country by Paul Nicholls, broke a leg on the fence before The Chair, while just moments later, Jenny Pitman and jockey Richard Dunwoody were reminded that misfortune does not spare the famous.

Mrs Pitman, in tears on Saturday when the National was postponed, had been swept up in the exuberant mood before racing. Now, as Smith's Band broke his neck and died instantly at the 20th, she was plunged back into despair.

That horses will die steeplechasing is a simple fact of racing life, but the problem with the National it seems is that the blood is so high, the determination so great that accidents are all but inevitable.

Consider the post-race comments of Peter Niven, who partnered one of the favourites, Avro Anson, yesterday: "Charlie Swan's horse kicked mine in the head at the 13th," Niven said. "And mine almost collapsed. Because of that he jumped the last circuit running dead."

If we do not ask the obvious question - should he have been running the last circuit at all? - then plenty of others will.

Yet the race which, after Foinavon's National and the "National that Wasn't", may come to be known as the pushchair National, still had much to gladden the heart and nowhere more than in the enclosure where Camelot Knight - third - at odds of 100-1 was being unsaddled by his trainer, Nigel Twiston-Davies.

Michael Gates, the chaser's owner, absorbing the moment with his wife and infant daughter, was beside himself with delight. "It looks like Tiffany's going to get some extra Pampers," he said (although it has to be said that Tiffany appeared distinctly unimpressed.)

"I can't believe it. I feel like we've won the race. This wasn't even his ground, because he needs the mud. We'll be back here next year and he will win it," Gates added.

At that moment Tizzard emerged bleary-eyed to set off on a long journey home. Gates can be forgiven his exuberance, but you can only hope that the attention of the Fates was elsewhere.

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