IT WAS the race that never was, and now never will be. The 1993 Grand National was declared void here yesterday after two false starts reduced the race to a farce. The disruption of the world's most-watched horse race was a victory for animal rights' protesters who staged a demonstration at the first fence for the second year running.
It was the most turbulent National day in the race's 156-year history. Some pounds 75m was riding on the event and 300 million television viewers had tuned in around the world, but it was inevitable that the race would be declared void from the moment most of the runners failed to stop after the second false start. Though most of the horses were pulled up before the end - with officials waving stop flags grand prix-style - a small group of runners continued to the end and galloped to the line as if contesting a legitimate race.
For what it is worth, the Jenny Pitman-trained Esha Ness crossed the line in front followed by Cahervillahow, Romany King and The Committee. John White, the rider of Esha Ness, recalled the dying stages of the race by saying: 'I could see there were only a few horses around, but I thought the others had fallen or something.'
John Upson, trainer of the 15-2 chance, Zeta's Lad, was more bitter in his assessment. Upson said: 'I spent a year getting my horse ready for this day. I have sweated blood with him. I have come here today absolutely ready to run him and this is what happens. I think it's an absolute disgrace that the world's number one National Hunt race is run like this.'
The trouble started when demonstrators ran on to the course seconds before the race was due to begin. Several of the 39 riders stood up in the saddle to alert officials to the problem, and by the time the track was cleared and the horses called in again, many of them were becoming fractious and reluctant to race as the level of shouting increased.
The initial attempt to raise the tapes ended in a false start followed by another long delay and a second tangle of tape and bodies. When the front runners carried on, thinking that the shouts of officials were those of protesters, the race had to be declared void under the rules of racing. Richard Dunwoody, this season's leading jockey, said: 'The tape actually ended up round my neck. Horses were treading on it behind me and I nearly got pulled off a couple of times. Whether I wanted to go on or not I couldn't. I have marks on my neck from the starting tape.'
Peter O'Sullevan, the BBC commentator, called it 'the greatest disaster in the history of the Grand National'. Two areas will need to be looked at: one is the success of animal rights groups in disrupting the race for a second consecutive time; the other is the failure of the starting system. When the starter, Keith Brown, waved his red flag to signal a false start, another Aintree official, Ken Evans, should have stepped on to the course further down to send the jockeys back. This happened the first time, but not after the second false start.
Peter Niven, who was aboard the outsider Direct, said: 'I looked for the man with the white flag after we set off the second time but he was ducking under the rails.' David Elsworth, trainer of Givus a Buck, said: 'I don't think it was the jockeys' fault. They were recalled the first time but not the second.'
Brown, officiating at his last Grand National, was booed by the Aintree crowd after the race was reduced to pantomime at the end of the first full circuit. There, the fancied runners Captain Dibble and Zeta's Lad were among those pulled up. Peter Scudamore, the former's jockey, pulled out of the race only when he saw Captain Dibble's trainer, Martin Pipe, waving his arms from behind a running rail.
Scudamore joined a chaotic scene back at the start, where jockeys had dismounted and the Liverpool stewards convened an urgent conference to decide whether the race could be re-run. Richard Dunwoody, who was enmeshed in the white starting tape on Wont Be Gone Long, had already donned his overcoat by the time Esha Ness and White crossed the line.
Initially it was proposed by Brown that the nine jockeys who obeyed the call to stop should be allowed to contest a new race, but that possibility was discounted when the stewards nullified the race. That decision saved Aintree further humiliation.
The overwhelming likelihood is that the 1993 Grand National will be consigned to the annals of the what-happened-next slot on Question of Sport. 'People have suggested that we turn up next Saturday and do it again, but we can't,' Scudamore, the champion jockey, said. 'We'll be the laughing stock of the world. People have put their heart and souls into this.'
The leading bookmakers said last night that they would refund all stakes, though some did appeal for patience from punters demanding their money back first thing on Monday morning. Yesterday's vast takings would have been banked, and sifting through the paperwork tomorrow will be an onerous task for betting-shop staff. David Hood, a spokesman for William Hill, said: 'It's a shame that the showpiece of British racing has been reduced to a shambles, but the punters shouldn't lose out because of a cock-up like this.'
Those jockeys who were criticised for continuing provided a thoroughly reasonable explanation for their actions. Charlie Swan, rider of Cahervillahow, said: 'At The Chair I thought there must be animal rights protestors in the way which is why I kept going.'
All said they would have stopped if they had been waved down a second time before they jumped the first fence, and for that error racing has suffered the indignity of having its most popular event reduced to burlesque. One hopes those 300 million television viewers will see the funny side.
If sympathy can be extended to armchair punters and trainers and jockeys, those at the track were particularly hard done by as they watched the proceedings under unremitting rain. Racegoers were advised to retain all badges in case the race is rescheduled, but that now looks the remotest of possibilities. If it was restaged in November - the only feasible date at this stage - it would diminish the 1994 running of the race.
The irony is that the animal rights groups have achieved their success just when many experts were saying that the National had been excessively softened to head off the demands of abolitionists. Rod Fabricius, the acting clerk of the course at Aintree, spoke earlier this week of balancing 'danger and difficulty', and said, justifiably, that the swing in the last four years has been towards the latter to the point where the National can no longer be considered cruel.
Yesterday's non-race was no guide, but anybody who doubts that the National is no longer the death-trap it once was should have watched the Foxhunters' Chase here on Friday. That race is run over the National fences, and no fewer than 22 of the 27 starters survived despite being ridden by amateur jockeys, many of whom would have been unshipped before the modifications of 1990.
If anything, Aintree may have been under pressure to restore some of the discarded challenges - though emphatically not the severe drop at Becher's Brook - for fear that public interest in the race will wane.
It may wane anyway after yesterday. Even the National, it seems, has fallen foul of these troubled times. Before racing there was a call claiming that an incendiary device had been planted in Becher's Brook.
Like Esha Ness's victory, it turned out to be a hoax.
TIMETABLE OF EVENTS
3.50pm: Animal rights activists invade Aintree, delaying the scheduled start.
3.58: They're off.
3.58: False start immediately declared after starting tape fails to spring up quickly enough, entangling several riders.
4.02: Jockeys re-group at start.
4.03: They're off again. Starting tape fouls again and starter Keith Brown signals second false start, but red recall flag not visible to jockeys, who carry on.
4.04: Only eight realise error immediately, and one shortly afterwards. They return to start.
4.06: Majority of horses still running as race reaches Becher's Brook for first time.
4.09: By halfway stage, more jockeys have begun to realise what has happened and pull out of race.
4.13: Seven jockeys carry on to the end of the race, when stewards' inquiry is announced.
4.32: Stewards still meeting as bewildered jockeys and spectators mill around trying to find out what went wrong.
4.40: Grand National declared void.
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