National by name, national by nature. Turf professionals tend to deceive themselves that their most famous institution offers the British people an annual snapshot of their own, curious little world. The reality, of course, is quite the reverse.
The Derby is contested by remote magnates, sheikhs and aristocrats. But the 40 runners who line up behind the tapes for the John Smith's Grand National each represent an intelligible strand of the fabric that weaves our society together.
Dream Alliance, for instance, was bred from a mare who cost just £350 and changed hands in a lay-by. Her foal was raised on an allotment above an old slag heap, and is owned by two dozen partners based at the Cefn Forest Working Men's Club near Newport. Those paying a tenner a week to keep Dream Alliance in hay and oats include a cleaner at Asda, a taxi driver, a publican and a retired noodle-maker.
Then there is Ballyfitz, owned by Fred Mills and his son, Wayne, who had played for Arsenal juniors when he slipped off a roof while working in 1990. Only 19 at the time, he has been confined to a wheelchair ever since. During an initial, six-month stay in Stoke Mandeville, Fred asked the then champion jockey, Peter Scudamore, to visit his son. That triggered new passion, new life.
Again, before cancer finally claimed her in 2003, John O'Donohue's wife insisted that he fulfil a dream by buying himself a horse. He ended up with Preists Leap, who twice won a historic prize in Ireland and ran well for a long way here last year. "You can imagine how important the horse has been to me," O'Donohue says. "No money would buy him."
It was the same with Harry Findlay's cherished coursing greyhound, Big Fella Thanks, when he won his trial stakes. "Everyone wanted to buy him," Findlay remembers. "He went on to win the final of a 64-dog trial and it was the greatest battle you've ever seen. He went on to win 31 consecutive races, a record."
No everyday figure himself, the professional gambler has become a familiar duct to adventure for the insular horseracing community. Findlay's colours have been carried by a champion steeplechaser in Denman, and by many winners on the Flat, but he wanted to save the name of Big Fella Thanks for a top-class prospect. Findlay was heart-broken when the old dog died last month – but here is his equine namesake, clear favourite this morning for the National itself.
Findlay has taken a giddy journey in betting but began like so many of us, with a 50p bet in this race: Boom Docker, who refused at Becher's in 1977. "I remember listening to the commentaries behind the goalposts at Wycombe Wanderers," he says. "There's no other race I would have done that for."
Ginger McCain, who saddled Red Rum to an unprecedented third success that year, always calls it the people's race, mocking the tweeds of Cheltenham and the glamour of Royal Ascot. Here is a place to puncture all self-importance, on behalf of yourself or your horse. The very environment, full of the chat and grit of Merseyside, will always do that – and so will those uniquely intimidating fences.
Even where today's race is flavoured by celebrity, it does so with the common touch. Andrew Flintoff flies in from Dubai to see the horse bearing his name, having been given a half-share as a wedding present from his friend, Paul Beck.
The four-legged Flintoff is trained by Venetia Williams, just like last year's 100-1 winner, Mon Mome. Flintoff has been backed at similar odds during the week, but Mon Mome returns this year as one of the favourites after running remarkably well in his rehearsal in the Cheltenham Gold Cup last month.
Those whose snobbery can survive even Liverpool refer to Williams as the first lady of Aintree – and Jenny Pitman, who made so many breakthroughs for her sex, as the first woman. But perhaps today will see them both overtaken in the quest for equality.
For with all respect to her 13 predecessors, the National has never been contested by a female rider as accomplished as Nina Carberry. And to describe Character Building as a worthy escort is to suggest that he has an excellent chance today.
Be in no doubt, Carberry is not just a pretty face. Though very picturesque in her glad rags, in the saddle she has none of the "femininity" perceived to have inhibited others riding against men. Even those who have excelled are saluted in condescending terms, congratulated for their sympathetic touch and the consequent freedom in their mounts. But here is a woman whose courage, horsemanship and physical condition would not permit the slightest anxiety should she find herself matched against one of the top male professionals over the final fences.
Last month Carberry, 25, lost a marathon steeplechase for amateurs at the Cheltenham Festival only to Katie Walsh, a close friend, with 16 "gentlemen" left toiling in their wake. The demands of that race were relatively akin to those likely to be made today, and should finally put to bed any lingering prejudice or presumption about "lady" riders.
Like Walsh – whose brother, Ruby, is the modern master of Aintree and seeks his third National on Big Fella Thanks – Carberry is bred for the job. Her father, Tommy, rode the 1975 winner, L'Escargot, and then trained Bobbyjo to success in 1999. That horse was ridden by Nina's brother, Paul, himself an artist round here and back with a sound chance at the weights on the 2008 runner-up, King Johns Castle.
Carberry can hardly be expected to win this on her own, however. Given a first National ride last year, she got an outsider round, last of nine to finish. But this time she has a highly competent partner in Character Building.
Admittedly he requires a greater leap of faith than his partner, having shown little in two starts since his return from the injury that kept him off the track after winning at last year's Cheltenham Festival. But his comeback merely comprised a spin over hurdles, and a midfield finish back at Cheltenham can be treated as a solid step forward.
Character Building has long appealed as the type to relish the National, having abundant stamina and the sort of independent outlook that has historically been stimulated by its unconventional challenge. Certainly, his trainer, John Quinn, is the sort of astute, understated horseman who can be relied upon to have him primed for today.
Another trainer saddling his first runner, Bob Buckler, has a big chance in Niche Market. A superb jumper, he never gives up and has recently been contesting some pretty reckless duels for the lead at shorter distances. His Irish National success last year showed what he can do once he gets into a comfortable rhythm. But he must give 7lb to Character Building, who changed hands a few days ago, and now runs in the colours of Patricia and David Thompson. They made a similar late swoop for Party Politics when he won in 1992, another election year.
And here, far more than in any opinion poll, is where you can dependably gauge the state of the nation. Here is a fanfare for the common man – or maybe, this time, for a very uncommon woman.
Fancy a flutter? Our experts' picks
1st Character Building
2nd Niche Market
3rd Arbor Supreme
4th Black Apalachi
1st Comply Or Die
2nd Mon Mome
3rd Cloudy Lane
4th My Will
1st Snowy Morning
2nd Vic Venturi
3rd Niche Market
4th Big Fella Thanks
1st Arbor Supreme
2nd Snowy Morning
3rd Hello Bud
4th My WillReuse content