National day without winners

Stan Hey witnesses a festival become a test of public forbearance
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The Independent Online
The day had started in true festival style with free bacon sandwiches and coffees laced with the Grand National sponsors' brandy, as a clutch of early birds defied the cold wind and grey skies to watch the traditional workout of the National horses on a stretch of the course from the start down to the Melling Road. Irish challenger Nuaffe was the last to take his exercise before stable staff and journalists adjourned to their separate businesses of settling horses and studying form.

Despite the eerie warnings of a terrorist attack which had been voiced in newspapers last week nobody at the course could have believed this day would turn into one of National mourning.

The two days racing prior to yesterday had produced record crowds, by lunchtime an estimated 60,000 had assembled at the Aintree course to celebrate the 150th running of the race. A marching band of Scots Guards played jaunty music to welcome the fans and at 1.20pm the Princess Royal unveiled a bronze bust of BBC commentator Peter O'Sullevan, who was about to embark on his 50th and final commentary on the race before his retirement in the autumn.

But even the man known to all in racing as The Voice could not have anticipated that his special day would end in such vile anti-climax and anxiety.

With the two main stands, the Queen Elizabeth II and the County, not to mention the vast corporate hospitality enclosures, packed to the brim, the Aintree course was set for a festival day. Ironically the regular protests of animal rights activists, who had created some of the disruption which caused the abandonment of the 1993 race after two false starts, had not been much in evidence and racing began on time at 1.45, with an estimated 400 million television viewers around the world settling down for this afternoon of spectacle and equine excellence.

With the first three races going to outsiders, punters had already suffered a shock to the system but just as the build-up of the big race had began the first ominous tannoy warning begun. "Commence Operation Aintree!" was the message, infinitely more troubling than any stewards' inquiry. With bafflement and bewilderment, racegoers gradually began to take heed and as police and security guards moved in to usher the crowds out of the grandstands and bars, a terrible silence fell on the course.

The process of evacuation took a good three-quarters of an hour as first the racecourse buildings and marquees and then the car parks were cleared of racegoers. Within an hour came news of the inevitable abandonment of yet another Grand National.

The bitter irony of this disruption, of course, is that this is a day welcomed as passionately in Ireland as it is in Britain. What began as a celebration ended as a wake.