Thirty giant leaps for a horse, one grand step for womankind. Such are the terms of emancipation available today to Katie Walsh – on behalf not only of her own sex, but also of a sport aggrieved both by its own luck and the judgement of others. For any one rider, male or female, the stakes seem so exorbitant as to introduce a crazily messianic quality to proceedings at Aintree today. Because Walsh must feel she is no longer merely trying to win a horserace, but to preserve a way of life.
On the eve of the John Smith's Grand National, the ultimate challenge in steeplechasing was measured by a fresh disaster. In the Topham Chase, staged over the National course, Little Josh had to be put down after breaking his shoulder at the 15th fence. His loss could only renew the sense of dread that stalks Aintree after the last two Nationals. In each, two of the 40 horses that lined up did not survive the undertaking. And for those who stage the spectacle – fully aware that millions have no other aperture on to the world of jump racing – these serial wounds now seem so excruciating that they can perhaps only be strapped in bandages of National Velvet.
Little wonder if they grasp today's many different scripts in sweating hands; little wonder if they vest so much hope in their leading lady. Walsh rides the likely favourite, Seabass, the pair having led over the last fence when third last year. Remarkably, of the two horses identified by bookmakers as her biggest rivals, On His Own is ridden by her brother, Ruby; and Colbert Station, like her own mount, is trained by her father, Ted.
The redemption promised by Katie and Ruby and Tony McCoy fighting out the finish may seem far-fetched – but the odds they must redress seem barely less remote. For this meeting seems trapped in a bewildering spiral of misfortune. After yesterday's tragedy, the director of Aintree found himself wearily reiterating the mantra. "We have made significant improvements in safety at the course," John Baker said. "But we also recognise that jump racing carries risk you can never completely remove from the sport."
The line of acceptable risk is not immutable, of course, and the regulators remain at pains to seek counsel from those welfare groups that responsibly reflect a changing society. At the same time, they have to stick to their guns where necessary. Last year, for instance, both fatalities in the National were attributed to fairly random misfortune. One horse was lost to a collision; another suffered injury only after losing his rider and maintaining a cheerful pursuit of the herd.
The fences were nonetheless tamed anew, their cores softened and landings levelled off. On Thursday, they were jumped for the first time and Walsh seemed to be enjoying a thrilling reconnaissance for today. Her mount, Battlefront, jumped superbly until tiring from contention, when promptly pulled up. To her horror, Battlefront collapsed and died moments later. A heart attack. It might have happened in the course of an innocuous canter at home. But it had happened on the National course, and newspapers and televisions could hardly fail to record the distress that had intruded upon Walsh's excitement, 48 hours before she was due to ride Seabass.
Affronted that a family tragedy could be distorted into a new haemorrhage for the National itself, Walsh cancelled a press conference scheduled here yesterday. You could hardly blame her, having seen in recent days that people can be scandalised by perfectly reasonable remarks. Some chided her for suggesting thoroughbreds are more pampered than some children; others, in the next breath, for saying that the life of a jockey should count for more than that of a horse.
But that is what the race does; that is what the race is. National by name, national by nature, it introduces horsemen to an urban society – and exposes the faults of each, one to the other. If Walsh can become the first woman to ride the winner, she will take both parties into uncharted territory. Would racing prove the more immune to condescension, or the tabloids? Who can say? Earlier this week, two female Flat jockeys had an angry exchange after one had posed for a photo-shoot in Zoo magazine. It turned out that the opportunity had been arranged by the sport's official marketing body.
Millions of different eyes will watch the race; millions will enjoy it in different ways, bet on it for different reasons. Sir Alex Ferguson will be here with a stake in two horses, remembering the days of bookies' runners in Govan. In the end, whoever you are, the universal imperative should be dignity. What if Teaforthree should win, for instance? He is trained on the last cliffs of Pembrokeshire by Rebecca Curtis, who would be saluted by the professional community as a remarkable young talent – and by many as a fetching blonde. But Curtis herself would think first and foremost of the man who rode this horse for her breakthrough success at Cheltenham last year.
Returning to the Festival last month, John Thomas McNamara broke his neck in a steeplechase fall. He remains paralysed in a Bristol hospital, with his many friends in the sport praying for a miracle. Nobody needs to tell these people the risks inevitable in their sport. And the redemption they crave most is not from the rancour of those who presume to do so.
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