Grand National 2013 Review
36 hours after the last of the horses left Aintree racecourse, almost all parties will be reflecting on a job well done. Attendances were cumulatively quoted around the 150,000 mark, with Grand National day a sellout again; bookmakers' coffers were swollen by an almost impossibly good result ("the best in living memory", as one layer was quoted); and the big race itself staved off the (generally) over-zealous attentions of the pressure groups with a race bereft of fatality, injury or - in the main - incident of any kind.
So yes, a job well done indeed. Or was it? In this post, I'll consider the highs and lows of a meeting which attracts attention as surely as a fluorescent blue light attracts bugs.
I was lucky enough to be there for the three days, and Thursday was a beautiful spring day: chilly, with that incessant northerly wind finding every garmentless recess and assuming residence therein, but sunny and offering much hope for the fixture, and indeed the year ahead.
L'Unique acknowledged the recent tradition of the fixture, by giving Alan King his fourth win in the last seven years, and second in a row, in the opening race. Of course, I'd missed that key piece of data and she went unbacked in this quarter.
And the rest of the day was left to the Cheltenham vanquished in large part. First Lieutenant went one better than last month and claimed a deserved win in the Bowl; Zarkandar went three better in the Aintree Hurdle than he had in the Champion Hurdle, and he'll surely be aimed at the World Hurdle next season; Captain Conan lagged up in the Grade 1 novices' chase, despite seeming to hate the ground; and the two handicaps were won by Festival stalwarts, Battle Group (4th in last year's Centenary Handicap Chase, 4th in 2011 Coral Cup) and Oiseau de Nuit (won Grand Annual 2011, third this year).
And then there was the Foxhunters'. Won by 100/1 rag, Tartan Snow, the race will be remembered by many who didn't back that triple digit shock for the death of Battlefront, who collapsed and died of a heart attack. As happens to marathon runners can happen to horses. This was most unfortunate, of course, but the key message was that the fences had caused no injuries or fatalities.
Moreover, and here's where we start getting to the rub (or rubber, as we'll come to), just five of the 24 starters fell, unseated or were brought down. That comares with twelve last year, nine in 2011 and eleven in 2010.
The changes to the fences have certainly reduced fatalities, but have they also increased facility (or easiness, if you prefer prose over alliteration)?
Onwards, to Friday. A cooler day and only a few shards of sunlight splintering through the blanket of cloud. But never worry, for today was Ladies' Day, and those Liverpool lovelies had one hell of an equine Chippendale to gawp at in the outstanding form of Sprinter Sacre.
Incidentally, it does get my goat that certain senior members of the press sneer at and patronise the ladies here. I overheard Brough Scott, generally languid and eloquent, referring to the Friday as a 'slapper of the year' contest during a radio interview he was giving in a desk adjacent to mine. That's just disgusting, and he should be ashamed of himself. But it wasn't exclusive to Scott.
Basically, my view on everything in life is that if you're in someone else's back garden, you enjoy their traditions with them, or you're in the wrong place. In every case, the ladies had optimized what they had, and made a fantastic effort: after all, it was their day! Good luck to them, too. They looked like they were having a great time.
Back to the horses, and again it was Cheltenham deja vu, with four gold or silver medallists prevailing: My Tent Or Yours, Dynaste, the monstrous Sprinter Sacre, and the hugely exciting At Fisher's Cross. All were facile winners.
While My Tent Or Yours may be a legitimate Champion Hurdle contender for next year, and Dynaste may win the Ryanair (or may not), I want to touch on the other two.
Firstly, Sprinter Sacre. This was a headline performance of the day. The headline performance of the day. Or at least it should have been. More on that in a second. But Sprinter didn't need to be at his best to despatch this brigade of ostensibly top-drawer opposition. Not in my view anyway.
Whilst Cue Card, an extremely lovable hoss, trained by a fantastic trainer, again ran his race, and proved incontrovertibly that two and a half miles on good ground is his optimum, others under-performed.
Flemenstar had his trip all right, but he's no fast ground horse. And before any smart Alec's or Alice's point out he won a 2m4f Grade 1 on good ground, let me point out that it might have been the worst Grade 1 ever. Yes, he beat horses rated 149, 145, 140, 136 and 135. In other words, he beat good handicappers off level weights.
This fellow will never win at the Cheltenham Festival due to the ground, and can only win at Aintree if it comes up boggy. He'll continue to beat up most in Ireland.
As for Finian's Rainbow, well, I'm afraid he's gone at the game. (I also suspect any chance he had was compromised here by team tactics - a mid-race move to take up the running and inject some pace was surely to make it a proper galloping test: just what his mate Sprinter needs).
For Non Stop burst and the Mad Moose... well, he's just mad, isn't he? (He refused to race).
Sprinter Sacre, despite all of the above, was visually stunning. He cruised up to Cue Card and then he sauntered by, in the fashion of the old Harry Enfield sketches where the jockey in front is kitchen-sinking it and Harry canters up with a cup of tea for a chat.
But... but... Barry didn't ride him out. I know he hasn't done that before, either, but it just leaves a doubt in mind about what else was in the tank. Now, two things: firstly, I accept that it's churlish - almost ungrateful - to have a horse of the brilliance of Sprinter Sacre and attempt to locate the missing chain in his mail. And I do so apologetically.
But secondly, in the past, he has been a horse which doesn't find much off the bridle. Obviously, he generally doesn't have to. If he did, though, he might get beaten. Allegedly, Sprinter has a breathing problem (!), and that might be the cause of his lack of oomph when push has to come to shove. As such, the King George - on anything other than fast ground - might be too much for him, and I'd imagine he'll be kept to two miles in the main. After all, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. (And if it is broke, like his breathing, but works this well, also don't fix it!)
After the race, I kneejerked on twitter: "Gold Cup next year, please". In truth, that's extremely unlikely to happen. Pity from a sporting perspective, but eminently sensible from a horse capability perspective.
My personal star of the day was a novice hurdler trained in Wales, called At Fisher's Cross. This lad is hard. He's bloody hard. He's the sort of bloke that you just look at and know that you don't mess. He probably won't do anything unless provoked, but if provoked he'll tear your arms out of their sockets and put your legs where they used to be! Yes, he's hard.
There can't be a National Hunt horse with better collateral form this season than At Fisher's Cross. He seemed to beat most of the Cheltenham Festival winners at various points in a six race winning spree this year, and he concluded that by duffing up a new rival in Just A Par here. 6/4 (returned 11/8) was too big, based - presumably - on a doubt about the ground. What price would he have been to beat up horses he'd already beaten up (in the main) on soft? 4/6? 4/7?
The price was an overreaction, not to something he couldn't do, but to something he hadn't done. Obviously, I got stuck in. I have to say, At Fisher's Cross is rapidly becoming one of my favourite horses, and the 5/1 about him winning the World Hurdle next year is sorely tempting. Solwhit won't beat him. Zarkandar might not stay. Big Buck's will be 92! Yes, sorely tempting, but I can't bet this far out, not even on a machine like him.
So, those were my headlines of the day. But what did the BBC think was the most newsworthy element of the afternoon to lead with on its sport site? Yes, of course, the sad death of Little Josh in the Topham Chase.
Having lost - no, abstained from - the bidding battle with Channel Four for the rights to televise horse racing, BBC Sport (and the Corporation as a whole) took the disgusting editorial stance of trying to corral antipathy towards Aintree, the Grand National fences and, by extension, the Grand National itself.
This race which had been shown on their channel since TV sets had only one channel, and on their radio station before that, became a target for a campaign of passive aggression which has no place on an apolitical (supposedly) public-sponsored platform.
In fairness to Frank Keogh and Cornelius Lysaght, the article was even-handed. But the BBC Sport website editor is a toad, a weasel, or any other wildlife creature which has come to resemble undesirability in popular parlance.
I do believe Keogh and Lysaght have a responsibility to lobby their editor more vehemently regarding the racing agenda and the sport's portrayal, and they failed to respond to my tweet asking "What are your thoughts on the BBC's Little Josh fatality leader, chaps? Good for racing? Sour grapes?"
Clearly, they're busy people, and that was Friday night, so I'm not aggrieved at the lack of response. I have a suspicion, though, that they were equally as frustrated as the general racing public at this lazy, hackneyed portrayal of racing over the Grand National fences as a cruel and anachronistic pursuit.
Incidentally, though Little Josh was fatally injured - an undeserved fate for a high class handicapper - there were just seven fallers from the 29 which set out. Whilst higher than the outlying three fallers in 2012, it was significantly lower than the 14 in 2011 and 11 in 2010.
Saturday dawned then, Grand National day, with a cloak of fear enveloping the big race. Racing's established guard seem to believe almost unanimously that we must report bad news above good news: that Little Josh's unfortunate demise was much more worthy of the ever-decreasing column inches than Sprinter Sacre's magnificent triumph.
Racing must shed its persecution complex, and 'man up'. It is clear that charities like the RSPCA need funding to support their generally excellent work. What is equally clear is that when they spend £350,000 prosecuting a hunt club, what they are really doing is investing in PR. Fox hunting (about which I have no view, incidentally) is an easy and high profile target: it is divisive, between those who don't participate (the majority) and those who do (the tiny minority).
The Grand National is the same. Massive PR opportunity for the RSPCA to get a few quid in their coffers. In some ways, it would be remiss of them not to take advantage of these opportunities as they present themselves, of course. And there is some sort of case for racing to answer.
But racing needs to stand firm against unfair demands and the sort of cheap, (almost self-parodying) sound bite rhetoric which RSPCA officials churn out. The likes of "a licence to beat them [horses] with impunity" after the BHA approved five hits in the final furlong.
Here's their lamentable effort on Saturday morning:
Following the tragic deaths of two horses at Aintree the RSPCA is urgently seeking more information about these terrible incidents to understand how they were caused. RSPCA inspectors and equine experts will be at the Grand National closely monitoring the race to see if changes made to the course following the deaths of two horses in 2012 will make the race safer for horses. We truly hope this will be the first Grand National since 2010 where all horses make it through with their lives.
Now, lest you think I'm some sort of horse butcher, let me remind you that I care deeply about animal welfare - not just race horses - and I am a supporter of the Racing Welfare charity, which undertakes excellent work.
My beef - if you'll pardon the pun in such close proximity to a reference to horse butchery - is that racing is in grave danger of allowing itself to be made a scapegoat for a body which must concede that its PR opportunities don't come much better than this.
Moreover, and it is a little petty to mention this, but we need to consider issues like the putting down of 11,000 animals in 2011 alone for 'non-medical reasons'. Now, clearly, it costs money to keep them alive, and as a charity the RSPCA don't necessarily have money. But when you spend £350,000 on a court hearing against fox hunting, it is quite hard to see the lack of funds for those 11,000 animals in the same light.
I understand the driver - which I believe to be somewhere on the 'cynical to commercial acumen' continuum - but I do not agree with it, or approve of it. People in glass houses and all that.
To the racing, at last, and thank the lord (any lord, as this is an ecumenical show). The results from a punting perspective listed between impossible and easy, as twenty-something-to-one pokes won the first two races (and the last), a 66/1 shot (which might have been 500/1) won the big race, and three very well fancied nags obliged in the rest, and meant that a fair number of punters may have escaped alive or, at least, with a shirt still upon their backs.
The undercard has little of note, save the impressive 'double whammy' by Battle Group, backing up his handicap hurdle win on Thursday with a preposterously easy handicap chase win here. He'll get brutalised by the handicapper for these, and he should too, but his work is done!
Well played to shrewd connections for changing the trainer to throw the bookies off the scent. Fairly sure the change of trainer was in name only, but of course I can't possibly evidence that, so don't quote me!
And then, at around a quarter-past-four, there was a little race with forty runners and thirty fences. As you'll know, it was won by Aurora's Encore, a 66/1 rag trained by Sue and Harvey Smith, and ridden by the best-named jockey in the weighing room (if you're a headline writer, at least), Ryan Mania.
After-timers point to his spring record and the fact that he was second in the Scottish National. And a couple of before-timers (very well played, Nick Pullen, rabbit from a hat indeed) managed to find this one as well.
The Northern correspondent in the Racing Post gets less credit from me, as he was obliged to pick a horse from his part of the world which probably left him a shortlist of six or so. Sorry, but he got lucky in my book.
And that's the key now. Luck. With the introduction of the new fences, with their uber-flexible rubber cores, the green covering masks what is now little more than a brush hurdle underneath. It's little wonder, then, that just six of the forty starters failed to jump round (some pulled up naturally, but only six fell or unseated).
Indeed, astonishingly, only two horses fell. Two! One of those, Tatenen, is perennially accident-prone, and the other, On His Own, gave Ruby Walsh such a soft fall that he looked like a parachutist landing as he stepped off the horse.
Even the six unseats needs closer scrutiny. Though I couldn't see it from the TV replay, it had been suggested that when Mumble's Head refused at the last, he caused two other horses to stop sharply and unseat their riders.
That, if true, means there were just six falls or unseats.
Fantastic news from a horse welfare perspective, and for the average once a year punter it makes no difference whatsoever. But if you were expecting a run for your money from an 'old school' National type, you were - in the main - disappointed.
Although Cappa Bleu and Oscar Time reprised previous placed efforts, the SP's of the first twelve home told their own story: 66/1, 12/1, 10/1, 66/1, 16/1, 80/1, 33/1, 100/1, 50/1, 33/1, 50/1, 25/1. Yikes! National Lottery indeed.
As for the weights, my theory about higher weighted horses was smashed to smithereens, as just four of the fifteen horses lugging eleven stone or more managed to complete; and just Teaforthree achieved better than twelfth place!
For myself, I took some solace in knowing that I'd bagged value about my selections, and it's value which wins in the long term (like the 20/1 winner I nominated in the last race on Saturday). But in the microcosm of the National itself, it was a disaster for me personally, and for those of you who followed me in. For that, I'm sorry.
So it seems that the nation's favourite race has become a sacrificial lamb for the case of racing in general. And, if that must be, then it must be. I don't actually have too much of an issue with that, per se.
But if the pressure groups don't get their ten minutes of air time out of the Grand National, they will surely turn their attentions elsewhere. Can we expect more scrutiny now on the Cheltenham Festival, for instance?
Only time will tell on that. But, as some of these limpets cannot survive without the oxygen of negative publicity from the Grand National and Aintree in general, they're quite likely to go looking for a new racing rock upon which to fasten. And the sport needs to defend itself steadfastly - and without its historical persecution complex - against that.