Ten minutes of high tension

Stan Hey describes the scene as an unbearable waiting game unfolds

MOST punters hope for the Grand National to come down to the wire. But very few would like to see the result decided in the stewards' room. For a deathly 10 minutes at Aintree, there was a genuine sense of unease about the possibility of Rough Quest being the first National victor in living memory to have the race taken away from him.

The usual joyous scenes as the winner is led up to Aintree's flower-basketed weighing room were muted as Rough Quest's jockey, Mick Fitzgerald, and trainer, Terry Casey, wrestled with the possibility of defeat being snatched from the jaws of victory. Casey, whose face was taut with tension, submitted gamely to the interview with Des Lynam, but his words seemed disassociated from his thoughts.

Fortunately, after an unusually brisk inquiry, the stewards decided that Rough Quest's perceived interference with Encore Un Peu on the run to the line had not affected the result. This decision also applied to fourth- placed Sir Peter Lely, who had also looked to have exercised undue physicality on Young Hustler as the race reached a climax.

In many ways, the moods of this anxious incident matched the sombre reflections generated by this first Grand National without its totemic figure Red Rum, who died last October. His headstone, in the shadow of the winning post, lists his monumental achievements - three wins and two second places, in a span of five years and its challenging presence recalls the inscription in Shelley's poem "Ozymandias" - "Look on my works ye mighty and despair".

Ginger McCain's pre-race tribute to his old champion was less poetic, conveying a message from Rummy to the runners, via Frank Sinatra, to "do it my way".

And the fact that the Rough Quest team were obliged to endure the knuckle- biting ordeal of a stewards' inquiry owed much to their horse's own quirk, which is almost enshrined in his name. For all his abilities, the runner- up in this year's Cheltenham Gold Cup, gives the impression of being the equivalent of the sort of person who nips in front of you just as you are about to get to the bar, such is his preference for hitting the front as late as possible.

But after the stewards had deliberated on Rough Quest's lurching move across the Martin Pipe-trained runner-up, and ruled it passable, there was time to pay tribute to the ease with which the winner had travelled through the race. Only the timing of his final attack, and its legitimacy, were in doubt and Rough Quest's victory paid an elegant tribute to Red Rum.

This was echoed, piquantly, by the display of McCain's representative, Sure Metal, who passed his old stablemate's grave with his nose almost in front, and though he was relegated through the field on the second circuit, Sure Metal did Red Rum's memory proud by completing the race, albeit in last place.

This tribute was needed yesterday as a National which even the official racecard referred to as "sub-standard", generated a fluctuating array of fancies. The absences, for various reasons, of the race's last two winners, Royal Athlete and Miinnehoma, and of high achievers in Jodami and Dublin Flyer had aroused suspicions that if the event had been a West End play, the public might have asked for their money back. The departure of Party Politics, the only horse with a possibility of closing on Red Rum's achievements, added to a sense of anti-climax. The other pretenders to Red Rum's legacy also gradually faded throughout the race as the new order of the modern Grand National held sway, with horses of proven class brushing aside the staying handicappers who are Red Rum's spiritual descendants.

Rough Quest was the class animal and his victory gave ironic credence to the belief expressed about Red Rum, that we will indeed never see his like again.

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