End of an era synchronised with hopes of vital renewal
Race needs its share of luck and judgement after last year's carnage and controversies
Though their most famous occasion remains an institution of British life, none who ply their trade on the Turf will be deceived that it is necessarily unsinkable. Heart-stopping drama is all very well, but not in so grimly literal a sense as in the John Smith's Grand National last year.
The graphic loss of two horses was a ghastly experience. So long as the debate remains balanced, racing's leaders consider their vigilance on welfare as beyond reproach. But the sheer breadth of the Aintree audience makes it hard to preserve that equilibrium when things become so viscerally distressing. Nobody could watch unmoved as the field bypassed a tarpaulin, plainly covering a carcass. Nor were various tableaux in the aftermath much help, with horses urgently dismounted and splashed with buckets of water – not to mention the winning jockey being marched off to the stewards' room, to be punished for his use of the whip.
It is typical of the regulators' dilemma, of course, that the very precautions taken against the unusual heat of that April afternoon compounded the charges levelled against them. Education duly remains a priority, but an abiding dread of complacency has meanwhile prompted them into various amendments. True, an attempt to revise the whip rules proved terribly ham-fisted. But respected animal welfare organisations have endorsed a series of modifications to various obstacles, most notably a significant elevation to the landing pitch over the iconic Becher's Brook; and likewise to the eligibility of horse or rider.
The sport held its breath, then, for the races staged over the National fences during the first two days of the meeting. On Thursday, half the field failed to complete the big hunter chase, but all returned unscathed. Yesterday, when the professionals took their turn, they sailed over Becher's like a row of tyres. There will be some, indeed, who now fear for the defining character of the place – but then the winner, Always Waining, clearly discovered something familiar in the challenge. Now one of the ultimate Aintree specialists, he won the race for the third year running.
It is impossible to eliminate risk altogether; and if the National is to keep its magnetism, it cannot shed all those properties that guarantee its status as the ultimate test. Previous modifications halved the attrition rate over the past decade. To an extent, what happened last year challenged the sport to prove true to its claims that it has nothing to hide. If those horrors permitted no evasion, they should also have renewed its sense of obligation – not to the horse, whose interests are jealously guarded by 99 per cent of professionals, but to a community that can be easily misunderstood or misrepresented. Jockeys will be briefed today to use their brains, to show respect not just to their mounts but to a legacy that might otherwise be denied future generations.
Once the sport has stopped counting the extra revenue, after all, even a new broadcasting deal with Channel 4 may compound its insecurities. For the time being, at least, this is the last National to benefit from the mutual sense of occasion hitherto prized in a long association with the BBC. Sir Peter O'Sullevan, whose tones so saturate communal Aintree memory, has rebuked his former employers for "an abrogation of its responsibility to cover a national event". By the same token, however, for the BBC to have lost all interest in racing contains its own, self-fulfilling menace.
One way or another, then, racing needs the courage of its convictions. There will be 70,000 people here today, after all, notwithstanding a Merseyside derby in the FA Cup. Yet the sport unmistakably needs the succour of a National that restores its romance. Happily, this field is not short of redemptive possibilities.
How better, for instance, to demonstrate an ability to move with the times than by celebrating a first National winner ridden by a woman? Nina Carberry and Katie Walsh are sisters-in-law, riding in the cause of their different families: the former for her uncle, Arthur Moore; the latter for her father, Ted. But neither would remotely depend on nepotism to attest their elite quality as riders.
Then there is the participation, for the first time since 1995, of the Cheltenham Gold Cup winner. Only the great Golden Miller, in 1934, has won both races in the same season. The following year, sent off 2-1 favourite, he unseated his rider; the year after he fell, was remounted and then refused. Garrison Savannah, second in 1991, is the only modern Gold Cup winner to proceed to Aintree that year and get anywhere close.
Such are the intimidating antecedents for Synchronised, who would also be the first to defy top weight since Red Rum. Though favourite with the bookmakers, with Tony McCoy in the saddle, few professionals are entertaining him as a likely winner. He notoriously tends to need time to get over his races, and his jumping technique lacks scope. Even so his trainer, Jonjo O'Neill, is sounding very positive.
"If he'd finished fourth or fifth in the Gold Cup everyone would be saying this is the right race for him," he said. "Because he's won a Gold Cup we all want to put him in a glass case and love him for ever. But he's a racehorse, in good form, and it would be a shame not to take the opportunity. He's a sensible horse. He weighs the job up. He's clever, and has his own system for getting over a fence."
Until O'Neill gave McCoy that overdue first National success with Don't Push It, two years ago, his experience of the race had been thoroughly depressing. As a jockey, he wept when another Gold Cup winner, Alverton, was killed at Becher's in 1979. "But they can get cast in their box and break a leg," he said. "We've had horses do that on the gallops. This is the chance of a lifetime, so let's enjoy it."
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