By Tony Stafford
Yesterday I had one of my best ever days at the races. No, not “at the races” or even watching Attheraces, except for the odd minute I snatched in between Aintree coverage and news from the afternoon soccer. No, it was in my living room, in splendid isolation save the occasional wifely or Yorkshire terrierly intervention.
People ask me “What do you think of the new Channel 4 coverage of racing?” I can honestly say that my viewing of it is restricted to samples – until I get tired of it – of the Morning Line, and Saturday’s offering got off to a sorry start, when it didn’t start at all until 9.30, 90, no 95 minutes late.
We got Graham on the roof, Nick (Clare must have been doing a bit of hotel waitressing in the town or one of her dozen other jobs), Mick Fitz, I just love that accent, and Jim, not Aussie, ex-Timeform. They did a spot telling us that in one hotel they serve lots of bacon, sausages and eggs – “And all the ladies (sic) dress up”. Liverpool differs from the rest of the country, then, no black pudding.
No, sorry, the all new, but slightly old wouldn’t ya say, Channel Four still has a long way to go to get my dial off Racing UK. In the morning, Stuart and the hefty young man with the northern accent who seems to know quite a bit – no, not Peter Naughton thankfully – did their stuff, and then the stage was set for Lydia to take over.
And take over she did, not quite a la Balding, but with just as much authority, and a real sense that above all she’s a racing fan and knowledgeable too. She had with her, for most of the day, three doyens of the station’s regular coverage, Tom O’Ryan, who had a Yorkshire triumph to celebrate and those two veterans of the press rooms of the south’s smaller racetracks, Steve Mellish and Jonathan Neesom.
In the days about a decade or so ago when it seemed only me and Jeremy Noseda ever used to get to Lingfield’s smaller winter afternoons – he for an almost routine winner, me for somewhere to go – Steve and Jonathan were standing dishes. What I love about Racing UK, they don’t worry too much about gloss and glamour, although Olly Bell is pressing Mr Luck in that department, but content, and all four of Saturday’s team has knowledge and enthusiasm in abundance.
It made for great viewing, despite the fact that I couldn’t help wishing that Punjabi had been saved to run on Saturday rather than in such a tough two and a half miler the day before when I simply couldn’t get there. As the years go by, my strike rate of Grand Nationals seen live diminishes but it still exceeds 70 per cent over the last 40 years, so I’ve done my bit up the M6.
The best thing was not even Sue Smith – not very Yorkshire, is she? Surprised Harvey of the two fingers gave her a second look with her Southern softie accent – winning with an unheralded, except by the brilliant Colin Russell in the Racing Post, 11-year-old called Auroras Encore.
That seemed a hard one to find, but there must have been a few Auroras, as I think it was Dale Tempest of Skybet told Olly Bell – who himself had a share in a runner, one of the first to depart, sadly – of a granddaughter with Aurora as her middle name. Five clairvoyants got the one-two-three in the Trifecta, although second and third were well up in the betting.
No, the best thing clearly was the absence of injury, let alone death, to horse or jockey, and the sight of the entire field of 40 intact over Becher’s first time round was a source of wonder, not just in terms of extravagant improbability, but also testimony to the effectiveness of the modifications to the course and restraint of the jockeys, contrary to general expectation.
It made it no less exciting for that. Most horses had clear runs round, and while the fact that they could brush through the fence tops soon taught them to do just that every time, the plastic innards of the obstacles were forgiving to the betterment of the spectacle.
If anything it made it more of a lottery, with so many getting round, but I bet there were some owners wishing they’d allowed horses with possible winning chances to take a shot at the half-a-million-plus first prize.
This was a day of unrestrained joy. Old Harvey Smith finally won his National, 70 years after he dreamed it. And Lydia Hislop and her cohorts kept it straight and simple and provided hours that Lord Reith of the old BBC would have applauded as they informed, educated and entertained in equal measure. Thanks a bunch, guys.