Racing: Publicity produces National swing by viewers

Greg Wood finds that figures for BBC's coverage of Aintree reflect raised interest
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The Independent Online
The belief that there is no such thing as bad publicity received a striking endorsement yesterday when the BBC released preliminary viewing figures for the rescheduled Grand National. Estimates indicate that almost 12 million viewers tuned in at 5pm on Monday to watch Britain's most famous steeplechase, significantly more than 12 months ago when the race was staged in its usual slot on Saturday afternoon.

The confusion surrounding this year's National, postponed for 48 hours after two bomb threats for which the IRA yesterday admitted responsibility, thus appears to have raised the profile of the event still further.

The 1996 race attracted 11.2 million viewers, a relatively disappointing figure for a contest which for many years pushed the Cup final into second place in the annual list of top-rated sporting occasions. This year's running, won easily by Lord Gyllene, had the largest audience of any sporting event so far this year.

"This is a massive figure for a Grand National rescheduled and restaged at such short notice," Brian Barwick, head of sport at the BBC, said yesterday. "It underlines the importance of the event to the British viewing public and we are delighted to have been able to bring the drama of this great event to the screen."

Charles Barnett, clerk of the course at Aintree, said that the organisers were "thrilled by the news of these truly exceptional figures. This illustrates the support the Grand National receives from the public."

Lord Gyllene himself enjoyed the traditional post-National parade for the media yesterday, at the Shropshire stable of Steve Brookshaw, his trainer. He is unlikely to appear in public again until the autumn, since Brookshaw believes that "three four-mile races is plenty for one year".

The chaser's main target next season seems sure to be the National once again, and the bookmakers Coral yesterday claimed that they have had several enquiries about the 20-1 which they offer against a repeat success for Lord Gyllene in April 1998. Betting on the National without knowing the weight a runner will be carrying would normally be lunacy, but such was the manner of Lord Gyllene's 25-length win that some punters clearly believe he would have won with an extra two stone in his saddle, and might do so next year.

Tony Dobbin, his jockey, spent yesterday recovering from post-race celebrations which kept him from his bed until 7am on Tuesday. "There was a surprise party in my local pub," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme yesterday, "and then the first call of the day arrived at 6.45."

Soon afterwards, another invitation arrived which confirmed his temporary status as one of the most famous sportsmen in Britain - when the balls start to roll for tonight's National Lottery draw, it will be Tony Dobbin who pushes the button.

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