Racing: Ring of steel for National

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The Independent Online
The 150th Grand National will be staged late this afternoon amid unprecedented security for a major sporting event.

In the wake of Saturday's bomb warnings and evacuation, the police and track's private force have captured the resultant mood of defiance and implemented drastic steps to make sure that the event goes ahead. The ratio of security men to racegoers is likely to be seven times as high as at the weekend.

No public vehicles will be allowed on course today, and racegoers will either have to park away from the track and complete the last leg by link, or use public transport. Each one of those that do attend will be searched.

Some of Aintree's enclosures will be closed this afternoon, and that factor coupled with the Monday timing means that officials will greet a crowd of anything over 10,000 as a success.

Charles Barnett, Aintree's clerk of the course and managing director, believes that neither these draconian measures nor the fact that the National has now been cancelled twice in five years will impair the flavour and image of the race. "The race is still one of the world's greatest sporting events," he said yesterday. "And we will run the race."

The decision to go ahead today came after talks between Barnett's Aintree executive and police. BBC1 will screen the National at 5pm (gates open at 2pm and BBC coverage runs from 4pm to 6pm), a time which fits in with its transmission to Hong Kong. The other two abandoned races from Saturday's card will not be run.

"It's part of our national heritage and we wish to run this race and I am assured we can get the course ready in time," Barnett added. "There's been a lot of damage to plastic running rails and some of the fences, but our head groundsman is going to do the work today and he will have teams from other racecourses [including Haydock Park's full field force] to help him."

It looks likely that 36 of the 38 original runners, some of whom were billeted in Haydock's racecourse stables and some who went home, will participate. Those that are out are Over The Stream and Belmont King, who became dehydrated after the evacuation and refused to take on any water.

In general, there was a spirit of resolution among the nation's trainers. "We want to run, we want to be defiant, we want to shove it up 'em," Charlie Brooks, the man behind the fancied Suny Bay, said. "Anyone who is not doing anything at 5pm tomorrow should vote with their feet and come to Aintree."

Aintree, the race-track, is well known for its scrimmaging and so it was on its perimeter yesterday afternoon as racegoers tried to find their way back to the 7,000 cars and fleets of buses that had been abandoned overnight. Many of the displaced 20,000 had spent the night in inflatable buildings near the docks, recreation halls and sports centres. Others were given temporary board and lodging in private homes.

The initial good humour of group adversity evaporated at the race-track as each driver had to have credentials checked before being escorted to their vehicles. Behind the barriers, police with sniffer dogs searched under every car and throughout the course's 250-acre site.

Those that do return with badges today will be admitted free. In addition, badgeholders will be able to claim a 50 per cent refund on their original outlay.

There remains no confirmation of the culprits for Saturday's abandonment, though it is thought to be part of a "non-lethal disruption" campaign by the IRA in the run-up to the General Election. What is certain is that a bit of the allure of the Grand National 1997 died on Saturday. "They can put it on again, but the magic has gone," Stan Clarke, the owner of another fancied runner, Lord Gyllene, said.

There is as yet no figure on the revenue Aintree will lose (even the management team was not allowed back on course into the office yesterday), though there is insurance in place to go towards offsetting the costs of the police operation.

The police response is being co-ordinated by Paul Stephenson, the Assistant Chief Constable (operations) of Merseyside Police. "No devices have been found but I can confirm that this disruption has been caused by the phone calls and not a device, subject to anything we may find during our ongoing search today," he said. "Nothing surprises me any more about terrorists. I don't think anywhere is immune from this sort of action."

The security of Saturday has been stepped up but even these tighter measures could be rendered irrelevant if the switchboard at Bootle police-control centre receives another unwanted call at about 4pm today. One senior police officer said: "No matter how many security precautions we take you can never be completely confident that a bomb alert is a hoax."



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