Racing: Under orders - and off: A clean start at Aintree as the tape rises on the first meeting since the Grand National fiasco

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LAST April, in scenes resembling a cross between Mack Sennett and P G Wodehouse, the sport of kings was turned into the sport of clowns in one afternoon. Yesterday we returned to the scene of the crime.

The revival of Aintree's November meeting was originally intended, ahem, to give the racecourse extra publicity and potential Grand National aspirants the chance to test their nerve over the big fences.

But, with the images of last spring's cock-up still fresh in the memory, the first running of the John Parrett Memorial Chase, over one circuit of the famous course, was bound to seem more like a test of officialdom's credibility than a strictly equine audition.

There had been some important changes of personnel during the summer. Captain Keith Brown, the man who, rightly or wrongly, will always be remembered as the most famous non-starter in the history of the Turf, hung up his bowler in July. And Ken Evans, the hapless recall man, had been reassigned to a less conspicuous weighing-room role.

The new starter squinting into the sunshine was the 50- year-old Simon Morant, an ex- amateur rider who has been professionally starting horse races for the past 16 years. His assistants would be other hand-picked chaps in brown trilbies all answerable to the Jockey Club's London directorate.

There were some important changes of equipment, too, to accompany the new men on parade. Gone were those slack, Heath Robinson-style tapes and the stuff about the half-fit man and the red flag.

In their place were two-way radios, oh yes, and a brand new three-strand extra-strong tape which could be activated non- manually. And which, we were assured, would spring up at five times the speed of the old tapes. It did, too.

The John Parrett, with only seven moderate contestants, was never going to be the most competitive two-mile chase on record, but the stakes couldn't have been higher none the less.

On the stroke of 12.30 the stern-faced Morant, hands in pockets, called the horses into line. This time there would be no truck with disingenuous jockeys, attempting to poach a sneaky advantage, or begging for a last-minute delay to dust off their goggles, or tuck in their vests, or whatever.

'They're under starter's orders,' the racecourse commentator declared excitedly. '6-4 the starter,' called a sarcastic voice from the ring.

And then, with one, brisk but invisible high-tech movement, the starter's button was depressed and they were off. Hacks, photographers and racegoers peered towards the first fence, but yes, it was true, they really were running.

Every meeting at Aintree brings some old masochist out of the woodwork to claim the place is too soft compared with his day. Well, it was still tough enough to catch out five of yesterday's seven runners.

The records will show that the winner was the unconsidered 16-1 shot Absailor, who was hardly a household name before the event and still has some way to go to become one.

But Indian Tonic, the progressive young stayer who put up a sterling front-running performance to win the Becher Chase 70 minutes later, could just be the real Grand National type. Ladbrokes have cut his National odds from 66-1 to 33-1.

The Becher was another triumph for the starter, but the old fences displayed their teeth once again. Merano broke his neck in a crashing fall at the fifth-last, and Adrian Maguire, a four-times winner at Ascot on Friday, ended up in hospital with back strain after a second fall at the second-last fence.

Before racing, Aintree's Clerk of the Course, Charles Barnett, wore the look of a man who would have benefited from one of the stiff libations produced by the Grand National sponsors, Martell. Afterwards, his smile had returned. But Barnett will not need reminding that racing is an unpredictable sport (ask Adrian Maguire) and that there's all the difference in the world between successfully starting seven- and 11-horse races on a quiet November Saturday and sending off 40 wired-up National contestants beneath massive media scrutiny.

And should the unthinkable ever happen for a second time, then someone in authority is likely to be offered not only a large brandy but a loaded revolver to go with it.

(Photograph omitted)