Robin Scott-Elliot: Jockey chat a non-starter as Balding roams the paddock

View From The Sofa: The Grand National, BBC 1
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The Independent Online

Never work with children or animals they say (and don't they always have something to say). It was animals at Aintree for Clare Balding and children – fuelled by chocolate and an early introduction to gambling – on the sofa. They were right.

To be fair to Clare though, she knows her way around a horse. It was the people and other animals that were the issue on Saturday. Balding is an adaptable, and formidable, all-round broadcaster but to see her in action at the National is to witness her in her natural habitat. She is Queen of the Paddock in the same way the lion is king of the jungle and it made the jockeys nervous.

Any connoisseur of the gloriously surreal comedy show Big Train will remember their jockey sketch – a herd of men in silks grazed their way across the African plains, keeping a wary eye out for their natural predator, the artist formerly known as Prince. At Aintree it was Queen Clare who took on the Prince role. The jockeys were jumpy and, as she roamed hungrily around the paddock in the build-up to the race, they sought cover behind their owners, mouths clamped firmly shut. The owners did at least offer plenty of cover, possessing on average the girth of a baobab tree.

It was good to see time spent on the jockeys in the build-up as, at the risk of coming over all Alan Partridge, they are extraordinarily perky little fellows and exude an air of real camaraderie in what is a tough existence. They were made to bide their time until the Beeb gave the cue for them to make a grand entrance into the paddock and the camera caught them with eager noses pressed against the glass of the weighing room door like, er, chocolate-fuelled children who like a punt as they waited for the nod. Then they were off – tumbling down the stairs into the paddock and on to a grassy knoll for a team photo, joshing happily. But suddenly they sensed their natural predator and scattered.

Balding never did get her hands on any jockeys and that's where her problems started. She questioned one owner about his horse's name, sparking a rambling anecdote involving a greyhound and a large supporting cast. It ended with the owner saying, "and he died last year." "The dog?" asked Balding, trying to clear up the ending for confused viewers. The owner nodded.

Criss-crossing the paddock to conduct live interviews is a tough challenge and one not many presenters, removed from the comfort zone of the studio, could pull off with the bullish aplomb of Balding. Next up were a bevy, or well-bevied, group of women who all spoke at once. "Your husband?" interrupted Balding at one point, again unsure of where exactly we were in the story. "No, I was talking about the horse," came the reply.

That was all viewed with the assistance of playback – the race itself was live and had to compete with a birthday party in full late afternoon swing. "Why's that horse not moving?" was the reasonable question as King John's Castle obstinately remained at the start as the others tore off. "Because sometimes you can't make horses do what they don't want to do." A posse of three-year-olds paused from sugar-induced bouncing off the walls to exchange knowing looks and make a note to selves.

Next question. "Which is my horse?" "I don't know," answered a daughter. Tony McCoy was reduced to tears when he spoke about his daughter, having finally broken his National duck. On the sofa there were no tears (they came later), only more questions. "Why haven't all your horses finished yet?"

Bite-size

Don't Push It, the joint-favourite at 10-1, was only the seventh favourite to win the Grand National in the last 30 years. The shortest-priced winner in the history of the national was Poethlyn in 1919, who raced home first with odds of 11-4.

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