The Grand National, the greatest horse race in the world bar none, takes place on Saturday April 10th, the last day of the Aintree Festival and, just like Cheltenham the preceding month, the much loved event will for the first time be staged behind closed doors as Covid-19 continues to exert its cruel, malevolent and deadly grip on people’s lives, loves and pursuits.
Certainly, the iconic three-day festival will be much the poorer deprived of the heaving throng of enthusiastic Scousers who annually come out in force to celebrate the Merseyside version of Royal Ascot but, at least, the “People’s Race” goes ahead, unlike last year when the plug was pulled as distress signals from the men in white coats to the men in suits resulted in the entire meeting being abandoned.
While gambling restrictions have been lifted in Gibraltar and it has been possible to have a bet in the Sports Arena in Casemates and Ocean Village for several weeks now, under Boris Johnson’s “roadmap to freedom” high street betting shops in the UK will remain closed until April 12th, two days after the festival ends, unfortunate timing for the bookies, a decision that is estimated will cost the industry north of £175m in cash betting as once-a-year punters and hordes of eager housewives will be unable to place their annual pound each-way on the famous race.
Another blow to the National is that the tiny turbo known as Tiger Roll, denied by last year’s abandonment of the opportunity to make history by becoming a three-in-a-row winner, having being first to the jam stick in 2018 and repeating the feat the following year – an awesome achievement that proved beyond even the legendary Red Rum – has been taken out of the race by owner Michael O’Leary, who reportedly was miffed that the handicapper had allotted his stable star 7lbs more weight to carry than when last successful in 2019.
I have two questions for Mr O’Leary, Ryanair’s abrasive boss – yes, Tiger Roll is getting on a bit, he’s 11 years, which in equine terms means pension pastures are on the horizon, he’s tiny, about the size of a pony, and weight can anchor even the strongest of steeds, but Michael, surely you must have a twinge of regret at your hasty decision to withdraw our little hero from the National after Tiger rolled back the years at last month’s Cheltenham festival, pulverising a field of top-class chasers to win unchallenged, thrilling the racing world in scenes reminiscent of derring-do deeds from past immortals like Rummy and even “Himself”, the almighty Arkle, by some distance the greatest chaser ever to set hoof on the racecourse.
It’s not too late to re-enter the little warrior in the race Michael and, for once, enjoy a rare chance to bask in the warm glow of public acclaim and affection rather than continue to suffer the slings and arrows that daily assail you. And my second question, any chance that when lockdown is lifted and normality resumes, would Ryanair be interested in taking over the Luton slots vacated by the collapse of Monarch? Just like Tiger Roll Mr O’Leary, it would be a sure-fire winner!
The three-day Aintree Festival, one of my favourite meetings, is not all about the Grand National, it provides an opportunity for recent Cheltenham winners to strut their stuff, to showcase their talent in search of further glory, and for the Prestbury Park vanquished, a chance of redemption – like PAISLEY PARK, who could only finish third for us in the Stayers Hurdle, to get back in the winner’s enclosure, and once again I’ll be lumbering the poor beast with my tenner when he lines up in the Liverpool Hurdle on the Saturday (4.40 CET), as I’m convinced Paisley wasn’t 100 per cent last time and compensation awaits popular owner Andrew Gemmell, who has been blind since birth.
And so, on to the daunting conundrum that the Grand National poses, the most demanding test of man and beast – a maximum field of 40 runners competing over a distance of 4 miles and 514 yards with thirty fearsome fences to be negotiated, the best known being Valentine’s, The Chair, Canal Turn and Becher’s Brook, so called because Captain Martin Becher, riding in the first Grand National, was unseated and nearly drowned in the brook.
At the time of writing, entries for both races have not been finalised which puts picking the winner as elusive as finding that old needle in a field of haystacks. However, undaunted and forever the optimist despite repeated reversals, I’ve got a horse that I feel certain is sure to give us a good run for our money – CLOTH CAP, trained in the Cotswolds by National Hunt elder statesman Jonjo O’Neill and owned by Trevor Hemmings, surely the luckiest of men, as the apple of his eye attempts to win him the great race for the fourth time. The 8-year-old gelding has been very impressive in its last two races, winning at Kelso and Newbury and, carrying a feather weight of 10st 5lbs and my tenner, already I can hear the commentator screaming his name as he jumps the last in front and sails past the elbow on that famous Aintree run-in to claim victory and the thick end of a million quid. It’s on the Big Screen at the Arena in Ocean Village – don’t miss it!