It’s still the Grand National, but not as we once knew it
So, everyone is happy with last Saturday’s Grand National at Aintree then, the BHA, RSPCA (fairly), press and, of course, Aintree itself.
The jockeys who rode in the race, at least those who were asked, seemed pleased enough as well, indicating that the essence of the contest hadn’t been changed.
But if this was the Grand National to which we have become accustomed, the National of our youth and beyond, that of Red Rum, Crisp, L’Escargot, Aldaniti and Corbiere, then I’m a Chinaman.
Of course the BHA and Aintree had to act, following a number of fatalities over the last few years, with the RSPCA breathing down their necks.
But, as a result, the National has been greatly altered and, perhaps you might want to argue, very much for the better.
The proof of the pudding is that all 40 horses and riders emerged largely unscathed from Saturday’s test, something that is welcome and a major relief.
But is that what the race has now become and the criteria by which all future Nationals will be judged?
The contest was a decent enough spectacle, but let’s not kid ourselves that it is any longer the savage test of man and beast it once was.
The fences certainly didn’t seem to take a huge amount of jumping and banging right through them was far from impossible.
The obstacles actually only claimed eight of the horses, two fell and six unseated rider. Just one horse refused and 14 of them pulled up.
All 40 managed to negotiate the first seven fences and that surely has to be unprecedented. And there were still 33 standing, which says it all, going out into the country for the last time.
It was a bit like watching an All-Ireland hurling final, without a score for, say, the first 20 minutes. How boring would that be?
A hurling final, as sure as night follows day, would ignite at some stage, but I’m not so sure the National ever did.
A colleague in the pressroom at Limerick on Sunday said the race has now been “sanitised’’ and it is rather a good description of what has happened.
There is simply no arguing that it has been watered-down and if the authorities allow it to be further diluted then the so-called essence of the National will be but a memory.
The other thing that struck me the other day is the amount of waffle that takes place on the lead-in to the race, especially at that much publicised unveiling of the weights in London.
We are subjected to all sorts of old tosh about this horse being well in, that one tossed in, another allowed to run off a mark way below its current rating and so on.
You know most of it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. And the reason is that even the sanitised Grand National is a total law unto itself, rendering logic largely irrelevant.
The handicapper, Phil Smith, could make a dozen blunders, when it comes to the framing of the weights, and the chances are would get away with all of them.
How else can you explain that the National is now a far easier challenge than before, which should greatly favour the better horses?
And yet we got largely a noshow from all of them a week ago.
Seabass faded dramatically to finish 13th, On His Own seemed to hate the place, again, Imperial Commander was pulled up, Colbert Station unseated Tony McCoy at the 15th and Sunnyhillboy, who should have won last year, was beaten a long way out and tailed off when unseating his rider at the last.
And I have to smile when I hear, over and over again, the wellknown cliché that the National is the greatest race in the world. It sure is, if you’re a bookmaker.
Much of that argument, you suspect, is because it appeals to a mass audience, far beyond the normal shores of racing followers.
And much has always been made as well regarding the number of people who tune in to watch the race, traditionally on the BBC, but for the first time on Saturday on Channel 4.
Apparently 8.9 million watched it at its new home and that was great. I’m sure they thoroughly enjoyed the 9m 12s it took to run the race.
Then, the vast majority of them continued on their merry way and are unlikely to give racing another thought until next year’s renewal.
Greatest race in the world? Give me the Cheltenham Gold Cup or Champion Hurdle any day.
The National is an institution and, for those of us who are serious about the game, a nice bit of harmless fun, where the winning connections enjoy a huge pay-day and good luck to them.
But to believe it hasn’t lost its way somewhat, that it hasn’t lost the element of real danger, which marked it out as different to any other race, is simply to delude oneself.
SAFE AND SOUND: All 40 horses and riders emerged largely unscathed from Saturday’s test.