This year you don’t want to be a jockey’s valet. Never have their washing machines spun so vigorously. From every sortie, riders return as mud-spattered as if they had been trampled by a dozen rugby scrums, and so many of us gathered at the Abbey Road Studios to hear the weights to be carried in this year’s Grand National were praying that the elements will have relented well before the 5 April contest.
The National is both jump racing’s biggest advertisement and its greatest potential disaster. In 1998, when the four-mile marathon was run in atrocious conditions, three horses died and only six of the 37 runners finished the course. In 2001, it was again a mudlarks’ benefit: only seven entrants survived the first circuit and only two completed without a fall. Over recent years the contest has been targeted by animal-rights campaigners and dogged by misfortune. When horses died both in 2011 and 2012, the ‘close it down’ brigade achieved resonance among a wider public. With the BBC, always hypersensitive to political correctness, having chickened out of racing coverage and amid fears of a smaller audience with Channel 4, the long-time sponsors announced their departure. Last year’s race became a key test. But after some sensible changes — softer plastic cores for the fences, a start further away from the noisy stands, a shorter run to the first fence — the race saw only two actual fallers (plus a few unseated riders) as Aurora’s Encore came home the 66–1 winner. Now to continue its climb back to being the pinnacle of Britain’s sporting spectacles the National crucially needs kinder weather than we have endured this winter.
Certainly there is much else going for what promises to be one of the most thrilling contests in years. Crabbies Ginger Beer, led by Judy Halewood who owned previous National winner Amberleigh House with her late husband John, have not only come in as the new sponsors but have also boosted the race prize fund to £1 million for the first time. With an enthralling battle for the trainers’ championship between the holder Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls, the title would probably be assured for either if they were to carry off the Aintree showpiece. Wise handicapping by the astute Phil Smith has attracted to the race top-quality horses such as Tidal Bay, winner of the Lexus Chase and the Welsh Grand National, and Long Run, a winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup and twice of the King George VI Chase. Paul trains the 13-year-old veteran Tidal Bay and Nicky handles Long Run.
Phil Smith has raised some eyebrows by giving Tidal Bay 7lb less than he would carry in a ‘normal’ three-mile handicap, and by not giving the Gold Cup winner Long Run top weight, but he argues, ‘If we don’t compress the weights we are never going to get owners and trainers to run their quality horses in the race.’ It was a tribute to his handicapping that when the weights were announced eight horses were vying for favouritism, all available at around 20–1 in the most open contest for years.
Tidal Bay is now a veteran of 13 and no 13-year-old has won the National since Sergeant Murphy in 1923. But he carries two pounds less than he did when winning the Welsh Grand National and Paul has taken Tidal Bay out of the Cheltenham Gold Cup to concentrate on Aintree. He will probably keep Rocky Creek out of the National until next year but also has entries with Kauto Stone, Hawkes Point and Sire Collonges.
Nicky Henderson said of Long Run at the weights lunch, ‘We have accepted he is not a Gold Cup horse today and we have to look onwards and upwards at different things he can do,’ and punters should bear in mind that his amateur rider Sam Waley-Cohen has a formidable record over Aintree’s big fences. Aintree-bound, too, for Nicky is Hennessy Gold Cup winner Triolo d’Alene, who won the Topham Chase last year over the Aintree fences. Stable jockey Barry Geraghty pleaded with him not to run Triolo d’Alene in the Hennessy so as to protect his handicap mark but Nicky chose bird in hand: ‘We couldn’t forego the chance of winning the Hennessy just to look after his weight.’
The Henderson Aintree contingent also includes at this stage Shakalakaboomboom, who was co-favourite for the race in 2012, and Hunt Ball, formerly a progressive chaser with Kieran Burke who has been returned to Britain after flopping over obstacles in America. Henderson, trainer of more Cheltenham Festival winners than anyone in history, has been entering horses for the National since 1979 but has yet to win it. At some stage his luck has to turn and my three for glory at this stage would be Triolo d’Alene, Rebecca Curtis’s Teaforthree, who led approaching the last fence last year, and Monbeg Dude, bought at auction ‘accidentally’ by a well-fuelled Mike Tindall and then shared with other rugby players and trainer Michael Scudamore. Like Tidal Bay, he has a Welsh National under his belt already.