The Aintree Grand National - A View from the Grandstand

This blogpost has only one London reference in it, but it does concern a British institution, and as I get quite a number of page views from overseas (thank you), I thought I’d do a piece on this year’s event.

The race has been running for 165 years, and I have attended most years since 1983 – a boys’ weekend, although the boys today have matured with age, or so we would  like to think.

Since I started my weekends of charity to the bookmakers, there have been years of controversy. The most dramatic was 1997, when the announcement of “Operation Aintree” prefaced an evacuation of the stands after an IRA bomb scare. Marching steadily down the stairs, I was barged out of the way by some bulky suited chaps who refused to apologise for their actions. Seconds later Princess Anne followed them.

The view from the Aintree Roof Stand. There are three courses: the hurdles course on the left, the shorter Mildmay steeplechase course on the far right, and the Grand National course in the middle.
 The middle fence nearest to the camera is the Water Jump.
The Parade Ring. The horses parade, and the crowd puts on a good show of pretending to be able to judge the condition of the horses.

The two-legged species in the middle of the Parade Ring comprises the "connections" of the horses.

 Viz. horseracing dress and comment below, note the gentleman with the satchel behind his back.

This year two horses were put down in the great race after suffering injuries – Synchronised and According to Pete. If horses can be celebs, the death of Synchronised as the winner of this year’s prestigious Cheltenham Gold Cup, fuelled the fire of protest that the race should be ended.

Today’s Twittersphere is bursting with views on what should be done. A main theme, supported by the BBC anchor Clare Balding, is that the number of horses in the field enhances the crowding at the fences and the chance of accident – According to Pete was brought down by another horse.

Reduce the size of the field? Reduce the difficulty of the obstacles? Whatever, 70,000 specatators pitched up yesterday and enjoyed their day. Remarkably, according to a policeman I chatted to, there were fewer than six arrests over the three days of the race meeting – remarkable because of the enormous amount of alcohol that flows at Aintree.

A racegoer is given a dexterity test of being asked to hold his ticket by his teeth in order to prove that excessive alcohol has not been consumed before entrance to the course.

Well actually not true, but the entrance security is tight.

Many come for the purist enjoyment of the racing, sometimes associated with an ownership interest in one of the horses. For the chaps of this type, a snot-green jacket is generally recognised as the badge of identity.

Others prefer a brighter shade of dress.

The gloom of the afternoon is enlightened. The two gentlemen on the left are evidently about to enquire if the young ladies have a tip for the first race. Note that flip flops are dispensed for free later in the day.

There was also the small matter of a competing event – the football FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Everton.

First things first. Note suits rather than football shirts. Liverpool won 2:1,
 and will go on to play Chelsea in the Final.

Bizarrely the football authorities chose to have the semi-finals at Wembley Stadium, so the supporters of both north-west England clubs had the joy of travelling 200 miles south on Saturday for a 12.45 kick-off. Perhaps the smart move was to be watching the match on the big screen at Aintree, as these folk were doing.

Back to the racing.  After what was this year a five-race curtain-raiser card, the Grand National was scheduled for start at 4.15. I say scheduled, as poor Synchronised also grabbed the headlines before the event by unseating his rider and bolting off, causing a 10 minute delay.

The runners parade before the race in front of the main stands...
...and wait at the start for Synchronised to return

And the winner was Neptune Collonges, overhauling Sunnyhillboy at the line in the closest National finish ever, the crowd inventing a win by a nostril.

Winning horse and rider wheel away in triumph, as shown on the big screen.
 The principal sponsors ensure that their wares are prominently advertised.
As the connections of the winner celebrate,
 the signwriter is already getting to work on putting up the name on the board.
But is our man checking his spelling (mine above is correct)?

Thanks to a good win courtesy of Saint Are in the 3.25, and a place on Cappa Bleu in the National, the author triumphed on the day against the bookies with a positive margin of £17.50. Mr Micawber would have been proud.

And will we see a 166th running? There will hopefully be further safety improvements, although whisper it softly that the drama is part of the occasion, like it or not. The answer to the question pretty certainly is “yes”.

The author is a City of London, City of Westminster and National Trust guide, and former law firm partner, who leads guided walks in the City and in Westminster. See tabs for further information.