However the reputation of this place is distorted, by its defenders or detractors, in any real world you know that each fairytale must be reciprocated by a nightmare.
On Saturday, a sport in torment will turn to Katie Walsh and Seabass and seek deliverance from a run of luck so macabre that it might pardonably consider itself cursed. Yesterday, however, the woman who hopes to become the first of her sex to win the Grand National found herself wretchedly inundated by the miseries she is charged to redress.
Having enjoyed an exhilarating reconnaissance of the big fences, in the John Smith’s Fox Hunters’ Chase, Walsh felt her mount weaken and quickly pulled him up. He had jumped brilliantly. Yet moments later he had collapsed, and he would never regain his feet. Like Seabass, he had been trained by her father, Ted. So it is that they approach their big day forging new steel from the searing intimacy of grief. The broader sporting parish, meanwhile, was left to ponder something grimly apposite in the wretched creature’s name: Battlefront.
Once again, those who had modified the National course in the hope of reducing its hazards had found themselves deceived. The first race over the modified fences seemed to unfold relatively innocuously, to the extent that traditionalists were disconcerted to see errant horses brushing gaily through the spruce. As after last year’s National, however, a chastening postscript would require officials to explain that even fatalities on the National course do not automatically reflect an unpalatable risk.
Mind you, to the millions who will volunteer their implicit assent by placing a bet, nor did this race offer much promise of venal gains tomorrow. It was won in the last stride by a 13-year-old, Tartan Snow, at odds of 100-1 – and the tricast, with placed horses at 33-1 and 40-1, proved so unaccountable that it paid just under £75,000.
Tartan Snow is trained in the Scottish Borders by Stuart Coltherd, who has 1,300 ewes against just a dozen horses. “We didn’t know how he would adapt to these fences,” he admitted. “So we just took it on faith and he pulled out everything. It’s unbelievable. I was up at 2am to tend to lambing, but I’ve got someone else to do the night shift so we can enjoy this. It’s what dreams are made of.”
Such are the daily emotional contradictions of life on the Turf. To those better versed in its ups and downs, indeed, a duty of exculpation can seem especially vexing when some of the best sport of the season gets relegated to a relative footnote. What a thrilling race they enjoyed, for instance, when a top novice measured himself against the seasoned elite in the John Smith’s Aintree Hurdle.
In the end, Zarkandar responded to a combination of blinkers, an inspired ride from the front by Ruby Walsh and the extra half-mile to stem the challenge of The New One by half a length – with Thousand Stars, again excelling round here, just behind in third – but the trainer of the runner-up could scarcely have sounded more satisfied had he won. “We’d won everywhere except the last hundred yards,” Nigel Twiston-Davies said. “So the drop back to two miles might help him. The champion hurdler has got to be worried.”
Zarkandar had been third to Hurricane Fly at Cheltenham last month but Paul Nicholls is persuaded that his fulfilment lies over this kind of trip and more. “The blinkers have worked really well,” the trainer said. “He can get a bit lazy in his races but they have kept him interested the whole way round. I thought he gave up a bit too easily in the Champion Hurdle, he was off the bridle [his jockey was having to push him along] in a matter of strides and I just thought he took the easy way out. His pedigree is all about staying, so that’s where we’ll go from here.”
Nicholls and Walsh had been obliged to settle for third in the Betfred Bowl with Silviniaco Conti, who had been going so well when falling in the Gold Cup. The favourite was on and off the bridle before closing up late behind First Lieutenant, who gave Mouse Morris a 62nd birthday present after providing one of three runners-up for his yard at the Festival.
First Lieutenant was given a ride of increasingly familiar flair by Bryan Cooper. “He’s a young man and it’s a young man’s game,” said the sage Morris. “This horse deserves his Grade One, he’s just a really good, honest horse. It was a toss-up between the Ryanair and the Gold Cup at Cheltenham. We went for the Ryanair and bumped into a very good Cue Card on the day. That’s the way it goes. The horses all ran well at Cheltenham, without blowing the trumpet.”
Another young rider to amplify his talents was Brendan Powell Jr, who won frantically competitive handicaps over both hurdles and fences. For the latter success he again teamed up with Colin Tizzard, as when riding a runaway winner at the Festival. “Brendan met the last on a young man’s stride!” Tizzard said approvingly. “There’s no way he was going to let him shorten up.”
After winning the last, Powell admitted: “Turning in, I thought to myself: ‘This can’t be happening again.’”
Young as he is, he may not know how many others had already expressed themselves similarly during the afternoon.