Spring days to look forward to - Aintree 2019 revisited
It's easy to forget nowadays that the Aintree we know and love very nearly disappeared altogether under the front buckets of developers' diggers. During the sixties and seventies, the racecourse was owned by the Topham family, who expressed an intention to sell the course for development. So began an era of the "last ever Grand National".
One idea mooted during the seventies was to run the race at Larkhill. And it's true the courses have a wide galloping track in common, even if one is right-handed, Larkhill left-handed. I dread to think how traffic management would have been achieved without visitors coming to blows on the Causeway, but I suppose some good roads might have come from it, had it come to pass.
Happily, as history relates, a public appeal raised enough money for Racecourse Holdings Trust, aka the Jockey Club, to buy the course outright in 1983, whence it has been rejuvenated into something even better than in its heyday in the 1870s.
The Grand National was missed last year as Covid-19 was sweeping over the world, as governments and the world of professional sport sought to keep going. The Cheltenham Festival had staggered to its close against some fierce criticism, and running the same gauntlet at Aintree really wasn't on the cards. JCR's decision to cancel was no surprise.
Well, it has been quite a year and Covid-19 is still not ready to depart the scene, but the sporting world is itching to move on. The Grand National sponsor, Randox Health, recently expressed its confidence that Aintree can weather the current economic storm, signing up for another 5 years from 2022-26. The Grand National is amongst the best 2021 horse events, one of those days you ring on your calendar and await with keen anticipation, whether you're a diehard racing nut or a once a year National office sweepstake entrant.
The first day of the Grand National was made LIVERPOOL’S NHS DAY in time for 2021, allowing 10,000 key workers to enjoy Liverpool's greatest race, but this has now already been rolled over to 2022. Nevertheless, the opening day offers no shortage of fun and excitement with seven races on the card, featuring the Aintree Foxhunter Chase over the big fences, as well as the Betway Aintree Hurdle.
Given that amateur riders have been excluded from riding on racecourses, including in Hunter chases, due to not being part of the "elite sport" descriptor that has allowed DCMS to permit racing to continue behind closed doors, one wonders what may happen to the race if this restriction remains in place. There must surely be either a case for changing the conditions, or giving the race a sabbatical for a further year if the last resort is to cede the race to professional riders. To do so would take a great deal of the special nature of the race away from it. No professional could top the reaction of Tabitha Worsley after Top Wood's win for Johnny Weatherby in 2019 (pictured below).
The best of the rest of Day 1 is undoubtedly the Betway Aintree Hurdle, over 2m4f, and a chance for the Champion Hurdler either to reassert his authority, or to find that extra half mile too far. At 3.30, as the flag was dropped in 2019, seven starters left the tape behind, with Mullins' Faugheen and Melon making the early running, before fading as the race intensified. The favourite of the race, Nicky Henderson's Buveur d’Air, fresh from Cheltenham glory, closed on the leaders from the eighth, but was hampered 3 out and found little thereafter, overtaken by Jessica Harrington's Supasundae, well overdue a big UK scalp. Ch’tibello, another French -bred fresh from Cheltenham victory in the County Hurdle, ran on well to be 2 1/4l third.
The opening day is not one to be missed, with its seven races on the card also including the BETWAY BOWL STEEPLECHASE, a Grade 1 over 3m 210y, with prizemoney of £150,000. Aintree is no consolation event for Cheltenham failures; the prizes are worth winning in their own right, and it's often the case that Aintree performers are more highly rated than their Cheltenham counterparts in the handicapper's season analysis. Kemboy was one such in 2019 who took the Betway Bowl (a suffix I might have had something to do with introducing) when beating King George hero Clan des Obeaux.
If there's one thing you can always rely on, it's that the Irish will always hold back a few good ones they haven't sold at fancy prices to wealthy British owners. Small wonder Rich Ricci has a majority of his horses trained in Ireland, where he can be assured of the cream of the crop!
Aintree is now quite well-appointed, and if you can ignore the unprepossessing surroundings on your approach to this old racecourse, you'll enjoy a fabulous day out and a crowd quite unlike any other in the entire UK racing calendar. it's an atmosphere that wouldn't have translated well to Salisbury Plain.