Amidst the rightful acclaim afforded to connections of Many Clouds following his Aintree win, remarkably little attention was focused on the marvellous news that for the third successive running, no fatalities were suffered in the world’s most famous steeplechase.
Some readers might think such news hardly warrants celebration but it is the first time in living memory that we’ve been able to share the statistic and for those of us who love horses as much as anything, it’s worth banging the drum.
So-called animal welfare pressure groups were again out in force at the weekend, desperately trying to ruin a great day for the sport with their hateful messages of death and cruelty, ignorant of the sterling efforts made by Aintree and its partners to put horse welfare at the heart of the modern-day National without reducing it to a glorified Bumper.
The Grand National day press room thrills and panics me in equal measure: the heavyweight sports correspondents take a rare day off from their football-obsessed lives to marvel at the colour and fun of the racing game, whilst a few salty news hounds lurk in the corner, hungry to seize on controversy, death and destruction. Mercifully they left disappointed, their copy unwritten, allowing the genuine horse-lovers to marvel anew at the chasing thoroughbred in full flow over unique fences on a unique day.
On Friday, Alan King’s stablestar Balder Succes suffered fatal injuries in the Melling Chase, leaving his groom, 31 year old Steve Ayres, utterly devastated. “I feel I’ve lost my best friend” said Ayres, before describing the moment he was told his mate had lost the fight. “The boss knocked at my door and I knew straight away and I just fell to my knees”.
Steve Ayres won’t be waving placards to show how much he loves horses; he won’t be campaigning for an end to racing. He loves horses more than any of the campaigners who seek to chip away at National Hunt racing on the biggest days of all.
Further proof, if any were needed, of the camaraderie which binds our sport can be found in the reaction to the horrible injuries incurred by Irish jockey Robbie McNamara the day before the National. McNamara had been set to partner Lord Windermere in the big race but spent the day undergoing an operation for spinal injuries he received after falling at Wexford.
Outgoing champion jockey AP McCoy led the prayers for his weighing-room colleague, and Aintree jockeys – without fail – reminded millions of viewers that is was Robbie who was on their minds ahead of perhaps the biggest day of many of their careers.
The risks these guys take are borderline insane, but the community which keeps them so tightly-knit and together is breathtaking. We all wish Robbie McNamara well as he continues his recovery.
With less than 3 weeks to go until we descend on the Rowley Mile for the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket, a timely reminder of the perils of antepost betting has just been issued.
John Gosden’s big Newmarket fancy, Richard Pankhurst, had been the subject of a significant long-range gamble in recent weeks with his odds for the opening Classic of the season contracting from 25/1 to just 10/1 before the news broke. Punters expecting to find a sympathetic bookie prepared to return their lost stakes will be out of luck with antepost rules deeming all bets are losers.
Let’s hope for a bit more luck as the Flat season unfolds.
Purists will say there is only one Grand National, but we head to Ayr this weekend for the Scottish renewal. Last year’s winner Al Co is worth a few quid once again, having fallen at the first fence at Aintree last weekend. He barely got into the race before coming down but the more regular Ayr fences are surely more to his liking and 16/1 looks very fair about a horse who loves it at this time of the year.