It’s Grand National week, of course. “The day the nation goes racing” as Des Lynam used to remind us at the top of the Grandstand programme in years gone by. And it’s difficult not to look back on what makes the Aintree Grand National so spectacular: evocative names of famous fences – Becher’s Brook, Valentine’s, The Chair and Foinavon – are as tongue-trippy as ABC for those of us who were brought up on the race.
So too, however, are the horses who seem to come back year after year for another tilt at the famous marathon. “I backed him last year!” is a familiar refrain as office sweepstakes are undertaken across the country. “I know that one! Happy with that!” cries the once-a-year- racing punter when a previous winner is pulled from the bag.
But on a serious note, we have the spectre of a changing Grand National on our hands this year and it’s not one which I welcome. A couple of years ago Pineau De Re gave trainer Dr Richard Newlands the biggest win of his life. I was with Dr Newlands at the Grand National Weights lunch a while back and he confessed he was worried whether his National hero would get into this year’s race. The handicapper has framed the race such that former winners are no longer guaranteed a run, and for me that is borderline sacrilege.
What makes the Grand National so special is the prospect of familiar names providing once-a-year enjoyers of our sport with a sense of narrative and continuity. We all know that National Hunt racing tends to sear a deeper emotional scar into our hearts than the Flat because our heroes return year after year, often losing, occasionally winning and reminding us why we fell in love with the animals and the sport at the same time.
Exceptions can be made for former winners, exceptions must be made for exceptional stories. Racing can stick too rigidly to its rulebook and its ideological mantra . Pineau De Re should be there on Saturday and I can’t help but feel we’ve got it wrong that he’s not.
It’s a little bit like Groundhog Day with Willie Mullins sending everything bar Min and the stable cat to Liverpool for his mega-assault on the UK prize money this week. He fancies a crack at the Trainers’ title and, purely according to the numbers, he ought to nick it off Paul Nicholls.
More interesting perhaps is the evidence — somewhat terrifying for his rivals — that Mullins’ horses can often improve from Cheltenham to Aintree (and on to Punchestown). His blitzkrieg in the Cotswolds last month could be overshadowed by his three-day charge on Merseyside. The prospect of once again seeing Douvan. Vautour, Annie Power and company strut their stuff in the Spring sunshine is enough to warm the cockles of any racing fan.
For me, Mullins’ best chance of a winner lies in the redoubtable Djakadam who seeks to avenge defeat in the Gold Cup from the absent Don Cossack and who ought to relish the flat track in what appears to be a vintage renewal of the Bowl on Friday afternoon.
Regular readers will know that I refuse to sidestep the awkward warts on racing’s largely pretty face. As I drove into work this morning, racing had made the news bulletins, not for a look ahead to the Grand National but instead for the grubby business of a four-year ban for trainer Jim Best.
It’s the front page of the Racing Post, it’s the lead story on the racing pages of all of this morning’s tabloids and those of us who believe in the integrity of our sport are once again on the back foot trying to silence the titters of despair from friends who can’t help but believe that there’s an undercurrent of corruption in racing. In the week of the Grand National, it could scarcely be more depressing.
I tried to cheer myself up by turning my attention to the biggest betting race of the year, before realising that my chances of turning a profit having backed most of the field antepost are dwindling. I have finally settled on Saint Are as my each-way selection of choice. The Tom-George-trained horse came second last year to Many Clouds but has largely slipped off the radar since that terrific run.
I am a stickler for course and distance form at Aintree every bit as much as I am at Cheltenham and George is, I understand, extremely bullish. That’s good enough for me and if Saint Are leads them home on Saturday afternoon I will demand a sainthood for George.