The pun­ters and the clue­less: it’s that time again

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THE Grand Na­tional. Words to strike ter­ror in the clogged, fal­ter­ing heart of your cor­re­spon­dent. The Grand Na­tional. The dole­ful, lin­ger­ing con­se­quences of these words are on a par with:

“I know it’s Scot­land v Eng­land in the World Cup fi­nal but my mother is en­ti­tled to come over once a week.”

“I just had a wee look un­der the bon­net, Mr MacDon­ald, and well it is much more than just the gear box . . . ”

“It hap­pens to ev­ery man. And, hon­estly, it does not mat­ter.”

“You only have a month to live. And it’s Fe­bru­ary.”

The Grand Na­tional. It has been aw­ful news for me through­out my life.

The first pe­riod of Grand Na­tional angst oc­curred when I was but a child. The truth is I was gam­bling be­fore I went to school. Ad­mit­tedly, be­ing res­i­dent in first Pos­sil and then Busby, there was no im­per­a­tive to go to school be­fore the age of 21. But as a street urchin I stood out­side the book­ies op­po­site the Cart­vale and asked the Big Men to put on my bets. Strangely, I did not have to ask them to col­lect my win­nings.

This predilec­tion for bet­ting was a per­sonal af­flic­tion not shared among the rest of the sib­lings. And I wish I could say the same for measles, chicken pox, scar­let fever and bubonic plague (which in­ci­den­tally leaves a nasty mark and the com­pul­sory bell can lead to tin­ni­tus).

Thus on Grand Na­tional day the fam­ily scrib­bled out lines and I was de­puted to ad­vise them on what con­sti­tuted each-way and how much they had to pay. Ev­ery sod­din’ year. Their se­lec­tions were not only, er, ec­cen­tric but com­pre­hen­sive. I marched over the Cart car­ry­ing a wad of paper so large it was mis­taken for the tran­scripts of the Nurem­berg tri­als, though the bets were con­sid­er­ably more grisly. In­evitably, I was in the queue at 5pm to col­lect my maw’s 2/6 that had caused her to scream so loud that I thought she had been told one of the weans had been di­ag­nosed with rick­ets. Again.

The Grand Na­tional. It had a sec­ond phase. This was when I was a se­ri­ous gam­bler. That is, I lost money som­brely. Grand Na­tional day saw my nat­u­ral habi­tat in­vaded by hordes of bab­bling in­com­pe­tents who just did not have a clue what they were do­ing. It was like the sports desk news con­fer­ence ex­cept that it lasted all sod­din’ day. And the sports desk news con­fer­ence just seems to last all day.

The level of in­tru­sion was mind-split­ting. It was like be­ing a Trap­pist monk and sud­denly be­ing asked to be a roadie for Me­tal­lica.

The con­certed bed­lam also came to­wards one like a typhoon of te­dium. It swept one away on a re­lent­less blast about how to put down “each way” (an­swer: take a writ­ing im­ple­ment and scrawl each way) and how to phys­i­cally place a bet (an­swer: phys­i­cally place the bet).

This con­gealed mass of bet­ting in­no­cents pre­par­ing for an event

One had to come up with a fea­ture on rider/ trainer/horse . . . The horse reg­u­larly pro­vided bet­ter quotes than your aver­age foot­baller

also pro­vided a bar­rier to one plac­ing a bet on a race that was to take place in just un­der a minute. Cu­ri­ously, they had a pri­mal, col­lec­tive in­tel­li­gence that con­spired to al­low one to place a los­ing bet but formed an im­preg­nable guard when one was clutch­ing a line that sub­se­quently would have paid out more cash than a rollover week in the Eurolot­tery cou­pled in a dou­ble with a 33-1 win­ner in the last at Win­can­ton.

The Grand Na­tional. It had a third phase. This is when I re­alised that bet­ting was as pro­duc­tive and as joy­ous as putting one’s hand into the microwave and hit­ting de­frost. And I stopped. Though I am oc­ca­sion­ally to be found lin­ger­ing be­side the microwave with an out­stretched mitt.

But the gam­bling was over and the big day at Ain­tree only then had a pro­fes­sional in­ter­est as one had to come up with a fea­ture on rider/ trainer/horse that was the story of the day. To be fair, the horse did reg­u­larly pro­vide bet­ter quotes than your aver­age foot­baller. People then asked you who was go­ing to win. You told them and the horse nor­mally bolted in, car­ry­ing up to 12 stone but cru­cially not bur­dened with one’s dosh.

The Grand Na­tional. The David Beck­ham of horse races, the X Fac­tor of en­ter­tain­ment in that it is both mas­sively over-val­ued and blown up to ab­surd lev­els. So here is the Na­tional ques­tion?

What is a hand­i­cap for mod­er­ate to good horses over 30 fences and four miles to the con­sid­er­able detri­ment of the san­ity of gam­bler and non-gam­bler alike? The Grand Na­tional.

CAU­TION, MAN AT WORK: the way it used to be, mi­nus the bab­bling in­com­pe­tents

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