Five things we learnt from Aintree this year...
1 Remodelled fences are a leap forward
The future of the Grand National was secured by root-and-branch reform – but only literally, not figuratively. For it was largely through skilled husbandry of turf and spruce that such an edifying spectacle was contrived on Saturday. Softened fence cores contributed to the unprecedented sight of all 40 runners sailing gaily over Becher's Brook. And the groundstaff also deserve immense plaudits for providing such a congenial racing surface in the most difficult of springs. After all the deluges of winter, they suddenly faced a renewed freeze and a spell of dry, windy weather that ultimately required the delicate gamble of watering. With a vast estate to manage, they produced immaculate going not only on the National course but also on the Mildmay and hurdles track. Both are very sharp circuits, but neither raised the stakes on safety.
2 Spectacle replaced horror show
After a macabre sequence of disasters – some so unaccountable as to suggest some kind of curse – the quest for a sponsor to replace John Smith's had begun to seem more icebound than that for the North-West Passage. But suddenly the National is no longer box-office poison. There will doubtless be challenging episodes in future, but the first National over the modified fences did seem to provide a sustainable template: less alarming than in the past, but no less exciting. The organisers had begun to fear that extreme agendas were infecting mainstream coverage. The identity of his rider, as the woman who was about to seek history on the National favourite, made Battlefront's heart attack a legitimate story for Friday's papers. But his loss was disingenuously exploited thereafter, to heighten a sense of crisis. As a result, the National was staged with zero margin for error. In the event, it gladdened the hearts of 70,000 people on course – and 600 million around the world. Meanwhile, around 30 protesters sulked at the gates.
3 Switch of channel increases focus
If potential sponsors had been tempted to follow suit, after seeing the BBC wash its hands of racing, they can now think again. Channel 4 recorded peak viewing figures of 8.9 million, eclipsing three of the last four Nationals on BBC 1. While both the chief presenter and producer had made the same switch, there was a new sense of pride and purpose about the Channel 4 schedule. Those new to the audience – notably the excellent Graham Cunningham – have been quick to consolidate their profile.
4 New start looks finished article
Jockeys and officials share the credit for a less frenetic start to the National this year. Things had not looked at all promising the previous day, when no fewer than 25 riders were given suspensions after consecutive false starts to the Topham. In the big one, however, the starter let the jockeys go before they got anywhere near the tapes – and they responded with something rather more temperate than their usual mindless rush. Whether or not the abbreviated run to the first fence was a factor, tension was certainly eased by the fact that 40 horses are no longer harried into racecard order for the parade.
5 Williams deserves reward of a win
Oscar Time making the frame for a second time qualifies him among several nominees for best supporting actor. His amateur rider, Sam Waley-Cohen, can be soberly acclaimed as one of the most accomplished Aintree riders in history. Welsh trainers (and not the Irish, as so widely expected) achieved a general distinction, with four of the first 10, but the award goes to the one who saddled Cappa Bleu to finish second. Not just because Evan Williams has now had a horse make the frame five years running, but also because he was so wonderfully gracious – and eloquent – in defeat. A first win for Williams would be one of very few improvements any reasonable witness might seek from the 2014 Grand National.
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