Balloons in the colours of Trevor Hemmings were tied to the stable gates yesterday morning, and it seemed as though the whole Cheshire landscape was conspiring in the celebrations. Yellow daffodils lined the lanes of the Cholmondeley estate; white clouds of blackthorn flared along the hedges; and green swathes of pasture glistened in the warm sunshine. In every direction, horses grazed peacefully; others peered out of their cool stalls across the cobbled yard. And here – his coat and eye unclouded by what he had achieved, and endured, the day before – was the winner of the most famous steeplechase on the planet. God, surely, was in his heaven, and all right with the world.
Yet it was precisely these springtime glories that had been so inimical to what might otherwise have united the nation in another Aintree fairy tale. The death of two horses in the John Smith's Grand National had served as a ghastly counterpoint to the dauntless courage of Ballabriggs. Jason Maguire, his jockey, had led his pursuers round two bypassed fences on the second circuit, and as he did so millions had glimpsed the harrowing reasons why. As soon as he passed the winning post, moreover, Maguire leapt to the ground and tore off the saddle, as buckets of water were urgently splashed across the horse.
Had it still been left to the trainer's father to clarify the moral complexities of the moment, as he sipped his champagne yesterday, the sport might have regretted even his unprecedented place in its folklore. Ginger McCain, who saddled Red Rum and Amberleigh House to win four Nationals between them, was predictably incorrigible. In his day, it is true, Aintree was less sparing still. But his son, Donald, did not need to win a National to identify himself is his own man. The things he is doing here, after all, are a world apart from Red Rum galloping over the strand at Southport. As befits a younger generation, he acknowledged the dilemmas of his calling – but urged those beyond the racing parish to temper their recriminations.
It is not as if his community lacks a proper grasp of the hazards. Earlier on the National card, a young rider, Peter Toole, suffered head injuries in a novice chase. He remained in an induced coma yesterday. McCain, meanwhile, could point directly across from the stable that houses Ballabriggs to one that has stood empty since Thursday. Inventor, the other equine casualty of the three-day National meeting, had taken his fall over hurdles. Yet to any outsider, these trifling timber boards would look utterly innocuous, compared to the giant spruce fences on the National course.
"My horse was killed over hurdles," McCain Jnr remarked. "I've worked on the Flat, and seen them get killed even on the gallops. There are risks in any sport. Nobody cares more about horses than we do. They are treated like royalty, and they have an awful lot better life than they would otherwise. Every horse deserves the chance to be a great horse, that's the thing. There's no great joy for horses being stuck in a field. And if a horse doesn't want to jump Aintree, it won't jump Aintree."
Vivid testimony to that effect is available from those tending the stricken Dooneys Gate at Becher's Brook. They were nearly killed themselves when a loose horse decided that he would sooner jump the hedge than follow the others around it. McCain Jnr was effusive in his praise for Aintree, where "no stone is left unturned" in making the race as safe as possible, while trying to retain a unique spectacle.
"You could see that just from the facilities at the end of the race," he said. "There were iced buckets and hosepipes and people rushing to help. And the horse is fine. He is tired today. But he had recovered 20 minutes after the race."
It was only two years ago that provision had been made to bypass Becher's Brook, and the course management has vowed to keep anticipating avoidable peril. Paul Nicholls, who lost Ornais, rang Andrew Tulloch yesterday to congratulate him on the state of the course throughout the meeting. But the clerk of the course reiterated Aintree's dread of complacency. "We will review everything, with the interested groups, as we always do," he said. "If we can make changes, to make it safer, we will. We all understand that it's a risk sport. We all drive on motorways, too. My wife lost two very good friends, in eventing. We have to manage risk as best we can, and make things as safe as is practical. We think we have improved things vastly, but we won't stand still."
To McCain Snr, of course, even that would represent an odious concession to those he loves to shock. "All the do-gooders, they want to take away the drops and all the rest of it," he complained. "They've modified things, and that's causing the horses to go quicker, and it's the bloody speed that kills. Now they're not getting the horses back on their hocks, bending their backs, measuring the fences." Ginger being Ginger, of course, he will be indulged most of his mischief. It is not as if he is any more precious about his own life. "It's part and parcel of the job," he pronounced cheerfully. Better, he reckoned, to go at your best than to end up "like me, old and doddery, and waiting to be put down".
He recalled lying in a hospital bed last Christmas Eve. "I was in a six-bed ward and within a week four of the other buggers had snuffed it," he said. "I told the doctor he wouldn't be getting a 100 per cent record out of me, and I was out of there that night. I'm not kidding myself, I'm 80 years old, but I always said I'd like to see that young'un win a National before I turned my toes up. And I've done it now. I never dreamt I'd say this, but he is a good trainer. If he'd just take up smoking or womanising, or something like that, so the pedigree could come out...".
Chris McGrath's Nap
Kay Gee Bee (6.0 Windsor)
Type to make a fresh start for flourishing new trainer, unlikely to be sent from Yorkshire if thought to need the run.
First Battalion (7.35 Windsor)
Powerful stable has its first runners of the season tonight and this one looks well handicapped on his second start last year, fourth in a race that worked out well. Visor suggests it's now or never.
Where the money's going
Quest For Peace, a Ballydoyle colt who impressed in a Leopardstown maiden yesterday, is 16-1 from 50-1 with Victor Chandler for the Investec Derby.
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