Did you enjoy the Grand National meeting? I did, although it was one of the less conventional Aintree experiences of my existence, writes Tony Stafford. I didn’t go up until the Friday; disappeared north-easterly after racing, only returning to Liverpool the following morning. Then, instead of watching the race first hand, with some friends, I followed the first five races on the big screens of the Sir Thomas Hotel by the waterfront before setting off home, and listening to the big race on the car radio.
Top-class racing often doubles up with entertainment these days, especially in the summer, with many other tracks following the example of the long-established Newmarket Nights. At the Cheltenham Festival, arrivals at the main entrance were treated to a highly-talented female duo performing from a rooftop above the doorway and in the Sir Thomas, the gaps between races were filled with a brilliant singer/guitarist, Paul Hand, who must have sung more than 30 numbers in his six stints before making way for each of the race commentaries.
At least 100 party-goers were booked for lunch, but our local host, Scouser Bob, had the inside track and manage to persuade the management to allow us to order some food to go with the cocktails – J2O’s in my case. The snag was that half our group had to leave in time to get to Anfield, so the food did not arrive before they left. It hadn’t come by the time we set off at 4.45 either, but sometimes the anticipation is good enough.
It is only by going racing that you get the full experience, of course. On Friday, in the owners’ room – thanks Alan Spence for the tickets! – there was a premium on seating, but an accommodating gentleman who I was sure I’d seen many times before, made room for a little one.
Upon my inquisitiveness, he said he was a friend and near neighbour of Paul Nicholls who always kindly manages to get tickets for himself and his wife, who appeared not to be at the track. His name was John Bolton and he said I might have heard of him in relation to the Frankie Dettori seven-timer back in 1996.
I hadn’t, but on my return home I looked back and sure enough, there were stories on the internet of the fateful day 22 years ago when John was going racing at Ascot while his wife Mary was spending the day shopping in London. Mary was the Dettori fan and somehow they decided on a bet involving doubles and an each-way seven-horse accumulator.
The bet, struck with Ladbrokes, actually came to a theoretical £930,000, but the couple were more than happy to accept the firm’s then daily limit of £500,000. John Bolton seemed a thoroughly-genuine, under-stated chap and it was no surprise when reading the back story to discover Mrs Bolton worked with disadvantaged children.
I felt I also had a little input, in that at the time I had just finished ghosting Frankie’s account of 1996, A Year in the Life. In those days pages were not as easily changed as nowadays, and the full run was already set, if not in stone, in type. We had to add a chapter starting something along the lines of: “Just when I thought….” As you can guess, the relevant volume is no longer in my possession.
I digress… The 2018 Grand National will be memorable for many reasons. I expected it to be something of an easy touch for Total Recall, but it didn’t take a clairvoyant to realise he wouldn’t be winning after the first few fences when his jumping technique proved totally inadequate. I doubt he’ll have a Recall next year.
Listening rather than watching, there was the feeling that there was a fair amount of carnage, but analysis of the result tells us that of the 38 horses that set off, only six actually fell, one of them because he was short of room.
Five more unseated their riders, and two of these, including my 66-1 long-shot Lake Windermere, were badly hampered. You could hardly blame the only two to be brought down, including the strongly-fancied Blaklion, who ended the hopes of connections, his legion of backers and his breeder Mary Morrison, when taking the opening fence right in the path of Perfect Candidate, the only other victim there.
Thirteen more pulled up, including Total Recall who got to the second last before being allowed by Paul Townend to ease off. Of the 12 finishers, my other each-way shot was the fellow (to the winner Tiger Roll) Gigginstown representative Road to Riches, at 50-1, who was a gallant sixth. Should have gone to Specsavers – certainly not to William Hill, who only paid down to fifth!
There will have been plenty of British-based trainers who would have been having a bit of a giggle when thinking back only just over a year to the bleating of Gigginstown’s boss Michael O’Leary, saying Phil Smith, the soon-to-be-retired senior BHA handicapper, was treating his (and other Irish) horses unfairly. O’Leary went as far to say he wouldn’t allow his trainers to run them in those circumstances. The Irish had the first four over the line, and five of the first six (eight of the twelve finishers in all).
Maybe it’s a shame he didn’t stick to his guns, as he does in the management of his airline, Ryanair, where if you want something remotely extra it’s a case of pay, pay, pay! Scouser Bob passed on a nice joke on Saturday. Michael O’Leary went into a bar, and outside there was a notice saying: Guinness 50p a pint. “Is that right?” says O’Leary. “It is,” replies the barman. “I’ll have a pint, then” says O’Leary. “Will you be wanting a glass with that?”
The weather for much of the country has been anything but a joke. Going across the Moors from the Cumbrian village of Tebay adjacent to the M6 across to Wilf Storey’s in Muggleswick, all the streams were running fast and there were still on Saturday morning the last isolated remnants of what by all accounts has been snow of biblical proportions.
It’s only now starting to dry out with temperatures creeping into double figures and at Hedgeholme Stud, the new location for the Raymond Tooth mares and young stock, evidence of what has gone before remains obvious.
The good news, though, is that the three foals so far born are thriving and the very flashy Mayson – Lawyers Choice colt, thus a full-brother to Sod’s Law, who ran well enough when fourth on his Kempton comeback last Wednesday, and half to Dutch Law, looks well up to the family standard.
Anyway, as I look across the rooftops from my office this morning there’s a bright sky promising more Flat-racing friendly weather for Newmarket and Newbury this week, and also less demanding ground for Cheltenham and, hopefully, Ayr’s big Scottish Grand National meeting.
Not much went wrong for Nicky Henderson with his host of Aintree Grade 1 wins, but one that should have won but didn’t was Theinval. If he turns out quickly again at Ayr on Friday there must be very high hopes of a successful recovery mission.