Even after 169 years, the magic of the Aintree Grand National endures. Nothing captures the sporting public’s imagination to such an extent as the four and a half mile event. The pinnacle of the National Hunt Season engrosses young and old throughout the Ireland, Britain and beyond. This year’s edition failed to disappoint, producing thrills, spills and eventually a standout winner – The untouchable ‘Many Clouds’ from the Oliver Sherwood yard. The sheer unpredictability of the National is a major part of its great charm and attraction as a sporting event. This sense of unpredictability is what enchants its followers, and by God we were treated last Saturday.
Much of the build up to this year’s rendition rightly focused on the great Tony McCoy, a 20 time champion jockey and the Grand National winner of 2010 who recently announced his imminent retirement. The script was that he and his accomplice ‘Shutthefrontdoor’ would gallop up the Aintree hill on their way to rewriting the history books. Oliver Sherwood, Leighton Aspell and their eight year old virtuoso ‘Many Clouds’ obviously never read the script. The Sprightly stayer never set a foot wrong throughout defying the legendary Irish jockey to claim the most coveted prize in horse racing circles.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the Aintree Grand National, from my own perspective, is the immediate aftermath of the event, the triumphant horse and jockey under the spotlight like never before. They are bestowed with numerous congratulatory hands, fist pumps and expressions of acknowledgement from fellow jockeys. They are then collared by the Channel 4 crew who inquire, ‘how did that feel?’ to which many jockeys are left speechless, ‘wonderful’ was the short but insightful response of Aspell this year. We then witness the ecstatic owners, trainer, and grooms etc. who beam with delight on the back of such excitement.
There is always a certain romance attached to the event. One of the famous tales of Aintree’s past is that of cancer survivor Bob Champion riding the 1981 winner ‘Aldaniti’ to glory. It so resembled a Hollywood movie script that it was made into a film. In 1979 aged 31, Champion was told that he had cancer and could only have months to live. After months of chemotherapy, Champion made a recovery and returned to racing, with the dream of winning the Grand National having kept him going through his darkest moments.
Personal anecdotes inevitably arise from such drama, from a punter’s joy to a connection’s delight. I can recall being asked on several occasions last Saturday, ‘did you have a bet yourself?’ How could anybody resist the temptation to join such excitement? I decided to rely on Many Clouds as a result of his commendable finish in the Gold Cup and his standout performances throughout the year. Everybody applies their own logic, from a local priest anointing ‘Godsmejudge’ as the chosen one to women worldwide congregating in their support of ‘First Lieutenant’ as a result of its female involvement through jockey Nina Carberry to my young cousin who liked the name ‘Monbeg Dude’.
The true beauty of the National lies in its ambivalence. Anybody can win, never has the phrase ‘stick a pin’ been more prominent with 100-1 outsiders regularly gracing the winners enclosure such as 2009 victor ‘Mon Mome’. This year, I got my first sample of national glory and it was sweeter than any steak I have ever tasted.