It’s still the Grand National, but not as we once knew it

Irish Examiner - Racing - - RACING - Pat Keane

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.

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