National by name, national by nature, it is an institution of British life – but our most famous steeplechase unmistakably finds itself at a crossroads.
Next spring, when all walks of society once again briefly converge upon it, will the John Smith's Grand National remain strong enough to challenge their changing sensibilities? Or will it submit ever more meekly to even the most ignorant and effete of modern expectations? Will the shop window remain a source of pride, or will it some day be simply boarded up?
The big fences are jumped today for the first time since the calamitous death of two horses in the last National. In the meantime, a series of modifications have been made – and likewise to the eligibility of those, horse and rider alike, who will jump them in the next one. The landing side of Becher's Brook has been raised, for instance, and it would come as no surprise to see the spruce strewn with Christmas lights as well.
Whether these latest changes hasten the loss of Aintree's unique identity remains to be seen. Such, certainly, was the fear of Ginger McCain, whose recent loss makes poignantly literal the notion that the National would be emasculated over his dead body. Clearly, it would be irresponsible for the authorities to share the stubborn belief of Red Rum's trainer that the line of acceptable risk stands immutable. At the same time, they must not lose confidence in racing's ability to stand up for itself.
That concern is compounded by the ham-fisted handling of the new whip rules. Here, again, there could be no eternal status quo. No 21st century horseman, after all, would think it defensible to propel his mount with spurs and hunting crops. But nor would he expect regulators to panic about what the layman may or may not think. So long as they set and enforce scrupulous welfare standards, they should be able to weather even those days that raise far more harrowing questions, between those who cherish and tend horses daily, than any that might be proposed beyond the sport.
You can never make a horserace wholly immune to risk. To that extent, the sport is on a hiding to nothing with these latest tweaks. It can only pray that fortune rewards its good intentions – both today, when hardly anyone will be paying attention, and above all next April.
The fences surely retain more than enough of their previous character for the proven specialists, Always Waining and Hello Bud, to feel very much at home in the Betfred Becher Chase. But this looks a more competitive field than the one Hello Bud beat last year, and he meets a far less exposed rival in Another Palm (2.10). Ridden by Paul Carberry, an artist round here, he will be making only his third start over three miles or more, having produced career bests on each of the previous two. He travelled particularly well when tried in blinkers last time, and looks dangerously weighted at the bottom of the handicap.
Carberry's mount in the Betfred Grand Sefton Chase has a similar profile, but Linnel seems to remain prone to the odd error. This time preference is for a veteran in Santa's Son (3.20) after he showed renewed appetite on his first start for Lucinda Russell.
However formidable the fences remain at Aintree, they perhaps represent no more searching a test than those in the back straight at Sandown – never jumped more slickly than by the elite two-milers in the Sportingbet Tingle Creek Chase. Paul Nicholls has won the past six runnings, but was yesterday forced to rule out Tataniano for the rest of the campaign with a tendon injury. Ruby Walsh switches to Kauto Stone, whose half-brother, Kauto Star, won the first of his 15 Grade One prizes here way back in 2005. Nicholls had been inclined to run the French import only if the going turned really soft and, impressive as he was on his first start for the stable, for now it can only be guesswork as to whether he is equal to this singular test.
At the same time, it is tempting to oppose Sizing Europe – the clear form pick, on consecutive wins at the Cheltenham Festival – after such an exhausting race at Down Royal, surely his final experiment with three miles. As an energetic jumper, dropped to the minimum trip for the first time, Wishfull Thinking (3.05) is a fascinating alternative. You have to worry whether there may be latent reasons for the way he folded on his return at Cheltenham, but it may prove that the tactics were simply too gung-ho, first time out.
When he's on song, this horse can communicate the joys of his calling quite irresistibly. And in the end, so long as that gusto is harnessed responsibly, it takes everyone to the root of the matter. For horses will only ever jump any kind of obstacle for one reason: because they love it.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Do It For Dalkey (3.40 Sandown)
Scottish raider has looked a different horse since a wind operation. Up in the handicap, and likewise in class, but he looks capable of better again for this test of jumping and stamina.
Another Palm (2.10 Aintree)
Lacks experience over these fences, unlike some key rivals today, but on paper looks just the type to take to the challenge under Paul Carberry.
One to watch
Zaina (Gerard Butler) made a fine debut at Lingfield yesterday, travelling well before running green and switched wide, then finishing so strongly that she nearly reeled in a far more experienced winner.
Where the money's going
On the eve of his experiment over two miles at Sandown today, Wishfull Thinking was cut from 20-1 to 16-1 with William Hill for the Champion Chase at Cheltenham in March.