Grand National: Summit survives a deadly contest

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The Independent Online
EARTH SUMMIT has been a good friend to Nigel Twiston-Davies and the Grand National-winning trainer did what you should do for all your great pals at Sunday lunchtime yesterday. He took him to the pub.

Twiston-Davies has a share of The Hollow Bottom in the Gloucestershire village of Guiting Power, where the locals' preferred anaesthetic is Hook Norton bitter. Like Saturday's Grand National itself, God knows what it does to your insides.

Earth Summit's casing looked shiny and sprite yesterday as he paraded outside a hostelry of log fires and racing photographs, including one of him winning the 1994 Scottish National (there is space for another one). We do not know yet, though, how his contents may have been affected.

Aintree was not kind on the eye on Saturday. Those that finished were a pitiful sight, and there were three others who will not finish again. The names of Pashto, Griffins Bar and Do Rightly will never be seen on our racecards again.

There were moments to unsettle the stomach in the great race. Runners had to steer away from one part of a fence as a tarpaulin-shrouded corpse lay on the landing side, and in another frame a horse with its leg dangling fatally could be seen on the last hideous gallop of its life. It was the sort of spectacle that would have had even the Romans hiding behind their programmes in the Coliseum.

There is no larger television audience for a horse race than the Grand National. Those that watched the contest on Saturday, some of them young eyes, are unlikely to have Earth Summit's laps of courage as their overpowering memory of Aintree 1998. Extermination and exhaustion are more powerful images.

It was not a race. It was a survival course. Those on site recognised this and the reception cheer for Suny Bay, who had shouldered 12st through the glue into second place, was at least as loud as the one reserved for the winner himself.

People within racing always maintain that athletic horses are well kept and the occasional loss has to be accepted. "How many people would have died in car crashes on Saturday?" Twiston-Davies said yesterday. "Life, I'm afraid, is full of risks. It's terrible but it happens, and none of us is here for ever."

There was not a pleasant fragrance hanging over the weekend though, especially following One Man's passing on Friday. There remains a terrible suspicion that if the going - which resembled the constituency you might find within a casserole - had been the same at a midweek meeting in the sticks the card would have been called off. It is not so easy to do that at a meeting which has been so heavily invested with pre-publicity and finance.

None of the horses which perished, it must be said, suffered death by tiredness, as they went early on. However, they were being asked to jump out of glue among a torrent of competitors, scrambling like wildebeest over a Serengeti river. None of the doomed beasts were very good.

It is worth investigating again whether there should be a raised level of ability to get into the National or whether the field size itself should be limited. Certainly, the Foxhunters' Chase on the Friday is an abomination of a race with poor horses and even worse jockeys and should be seen on only old videos from now on.

Whatever the conditions, Earth Summit will be back next season, when he also has the Becher Chase, over the same fences in November, and the Welsh National, among his objectives. The 10-year-old was late into the saddling area on Saturday because when his stable box was opened he was initially too frightened to step over a puddle that had formed outside the door. It didn't get any easier.

In the race itself, the gelding was invisible for most of the first circuit before becoming one of only two horses effectively in the contest later on. "The ones out for a joyride went quick," Carl Llewellyn, the winning jockey, said yesterday. "The serious ones who wanted to win knew they couldn't if they went that gallop and we were out the back."

Earth Summit was yesterday back at the digs where they call him Digger for his propensity for throwing box shavings into the air with his snout. He is so slow at home that Twiston-Davies works others against him if they need their confidence bolstering. A regular tableau of morning work is Marcella Bayliss, Earth Summit's lass, pulling her conveyance off the gallops so other members of the string can get past.

The old warrior nevertheless looked proud of himself yesterday at Grange Hill Farm, a pale-stoned yard atop a Cotswold hill. Twiston-Davies exhibited that he had not allowed success to spoil him by wearing his much-travelled Paddington duffel coat.

It had been a Grand National which fulfilled some rather threadbare stereotypes about the contest. On the credit side it showed that just about any old middle-class fool can still own a Liverpool winner. "Quite a lot of people could have thrown together a syndicate of six like we've got and bought this horse," Twiston-Davies said. "That's why jumps racing is so much better than Flat racing because that sort of thing can happen. If six people get together and pay pounds 5,800 they're not going to buy a Derby winner are they?"

The debit portion, however, is fairly heavy confirmation that the National can be a slayer, a holding pen on the way to the abattoir. And that, sadly, will almost certainly be the principal impression remaining with the viewers of Grand National 1988.