Ten million viewers tuned into Channel 4 Racing on Saturday for the Grand National. Ten whole million people. Of all the stories that emerged from that magical day on Merseyside, this is perhaps the one with the longest lasting resonance.
As regular readers will know, I have not been backwards in coming forwards to shine a light on some of the shortcomings of the sport we love. But I’ll dish out fulsome praise where it is due and when we are allowed to bask in the very real evidence that 10 million of our fellow countrymen and women want to enjoy our sport, it’s a moment to celebrate.
We won’t get carried away and assume that we can take any more than a fraction of those extra viewers with us into the Flat season this Summer. But within that fraction, there were surely some families at home with a youngster or two whose enthusiasm was fired by the unfolding stories at Liverpool. Those youngsters will start on a journey now, one that I set out on some years ago after watching Des Lynam front the big race and one which has given untold joy and nourishment to the soul.
We are a nation that loves horses. I also believe we are a nation that enjoys racing and while visitors to this blog might not be representative of the public at large, I also believe we’re a nation that doesn’t mind a little flutter.
We should be proud that the Grand National pulls in the many millions, we should be excited that Channel 4 leaves a legacy on which ITV can hopefully build next year when terrestrial coverage switches to them, and we can once again hold our heads up high and remind ourselves that we are not a niche pastime, but are part of the very fabric of all that makes the UK such a wonderful place to live.
After Cheltenham, I chastised those who turned a blind eye to the equine fatalities at the Festival. If we are to truly invest our emotions in horse racing we cannot ignore the worst moments that come with it.
So it was with more than a degree of anxiety that I arrived at Aintree on Thursday morning. Three days later we had, to my mind, a little too much back-slapping that all the horses and jockeys had come home safe and sound after the Grand National itself. We’d lost horses earlier in the meeting and we cannot pick and choose what we look at.
I have zero time for those old dewy-eyed romantics who believed the race was somehow greater when the ditch at Becher’s Brook resembled the north side of the Eiger. Horses dying at any time is awful. Horses dying on the biggest days of all when the nation is watching is worse still.
For those of us who bet, for those of us who argue and for those of us who have little more than a passing, armchair interest, the starting point must always be the same: make racing as safe as we can while retaining the excitement. And frankly if it’s a 50:50 call as to what must be sacrificed, we must never ever sacrifice safety. Without the horses we have absolutely nothing and their safety must always come first. There is more for Aintree, Cheltenham and all our racecourses to do.
Much was made of the odds-on processional races that preceded the Grand National on Saturday afternoon and while I’m in the camp of those who believe you can have too much of a good thing when it comes to quality horses in uncompetitive heats one after the other, I can’t dispute that – in Douvan and Thistlecrack – we may have seen two horses who may come to stand the test of time through the ages.
I am not a great clock-watcher but the time team at Aintree tell me that the sectionals posted by Douvan in his latest romp on rain-softened ground were off the charts. When Rich Ricci muses that this might be the best he has ever had, it’s time to stop and stare.
In Thistlecrack, we have the most exciting horse in training. He could easily dominate the staying hurdling division for years to come in the style of Big Buck’s who, brilliant as he was, never set the heart racing as Thistlecrack has this term. Connections seem keen to go chasing and trainer Colin Tizzard will not hesitate in shooting for the moon in the next year or two.
It is dangerous to heap too much expectation on horses, but what’s the point in being circumspect in a world of timid souls? These two horses will sustain National Hunt fans through their shallow Summer and bring us to Autumn with memories and dreams for a season ahead.
With the exception of Punchestown, which will always hold a special place in my heart (it’s where I met my wife), attention switches almost unequivocally to the Flat and this week’s Crave meeting at Newmarket with the Greenham this Saturday.
I’m going to refrain from tipping just yet on grounds that recent rain and a host of unexposed early season types will be on display in the coming days, eager to relieve us of what’s left of our Aintree wallets.
It was anything but a vintage period for my tipping as winter gave way to spring but as spring prepares for summer, I’ll be watching eagerly over this next fortnight to ensure we arrive at the Guineas in little over a fortnight with a clearer idea as to what we can expect to come rattling down the line this term. Sit tight for now.