For lovers of racing, little compares to an afternoon (or evening) at the track. The sport is best experienced in the flesh, and the world’s race courses offer diverse ways to enjoy this pursuit. While we can’t literally transport you to the races, we’ll do our best to bring these tracks to you in a monthly series of profiles. Today, Sean Magee looks at the high-level racing offered these days at Aintree, home of Saturday’s Grand National, on day four of his five-day report on the course.
Aintree Racecourse has seen huge improvements in its racing programme in recent times. At the lowest point of the Grand National’s history in the 1970s, there was just the one three-day meeting a year, and the quality of the racing beyond the three contests on the Grand National course was – with the notable exception of the Aintree Hurdle from 1977 – less than stellar.
Nowadays, the level of racing fare on offer is of a high order.
First major race of the Aintree season is the Old Roan Chase (G2) in late October, the period when the equine stars of the previous season are seriously warming up for the new term. The great chaser Kauto Star won this in 2006, and the following year finished runner-up in the race to the grey Monet’s Garden, one of the most popular horses of recent times. Monet’s Garden won the race again in 2009 and 2010.
Aintree’s next big meeting comes in early December, and features the listed Becher Chase and Grand Sefton Chase, both run over the Grand National fences.
But the stand-out fixture of the Aintree year is, of course, the three-day Grand National Festival (sponsored for the first time by the beverage company Crabbie’s in 2014). Each day has one race over the National fences – Fox Hunters’ Chase on Thursday, Topham Chase on Friday, Grand National on Saturday – but it is a measure of the extremely high quality of the sport at this meeting that there are no fewer than eight G1 races over the three days:
- Anniversary Juvenile Hurdle (2 miles and half a furlong, 4-year-olds), a follow-up to the Triumph Hurdle, the season’s 4-year-old hurdling championship, at the Cheltenham Festival.
- Betfred Bowl (3 miles 1 furlong, 5-year-olds and up) for the leading staying chasers and often a target for horses who have run in – or even won – the Cheltenham Gold Cup: No horse has followed Gold Cup victory with victory in this race in the same season, and some famous names have suffered misfortune in the attempt: Dawn Run (1986) fell at the first fence, and Desert Orchid (1989) also fell, as did Gold Cup runner-up Denman (2009).
- Aintree Hurdle (2½ miles, 4-year-olds and up) for the cream of hurdlers; Champion Hurdlers who have won this race: Night Nurse (dead-heated in 1977), Monksfield (who dead-heated with Night Nurse and then won twice more), Gaye Brief, Dawn Run, Beech Road, Morley Street (four times), and triple Champion Hurdle-winner Istabraq (1998-2000), who was trained by Aidan O’Brien.
- Manifesto Novices’ Chase (2½ miles, 5 year-olds and up); first run in 2009; owner Diane Whateley has won the race twice – with Wishfull Thinking in 2011 and Menorah in 2012.
- Melling Chase (2½ miles, 5-year-olds and up), a top-notch steeplechase that has been won by such great horses as Remittance Man, Viking Flagship (twice, including the sensational three-way battle with Deep Sensation and Martha’s Son in 1995), Moscow Flyer (twice), Master Minded and Sprinter Sacre; but the popular grey chaser One Man was killed in the 1998 race.
- Sefton Novices’ Hurdle (3 miles and half a furlong, 4-year-olds and up) for staying novice hurdlers.
- Maghull Novices’ Chase (2 miles, 5-year-olds and up), won by many future champion two-milers, including Pearlyman, Ask Tom, Flagship Uber Alles, Well Chief, and Sprinter Sacre.
- Liverpool Hurdle (3 miles and half a furlong, 4-year-olds and up); won by many of the great staying hurdlers, including Big Buck’s four times.
10 THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT AINTREE
1) The Grand National took place at Aintree in 1915, but for the rest of the World War I – that is, in 1916, 1917, and 1918 – the War Office took over the site and a substitute race was run at Gatwick in Sussex. That course closed in 1940 and is now the location of a major international airport. The South Terminal of Gatwick Airport sits on land previously occupied by the home bend, grandstand and paddock.
2) There was no substitute Grand National during World War II, when Aintree was used as a transport depot for the American forces. Following the 1940 race, the race was not run until 1946.
3) Drake’s Drum, who won the six-furlong Hulton Plate in 1966, shortly before Anglo landed the Grand National, was led into the winner’s enclosure by a young man who was already a Liverpool icon – Paul McCartney, who had bought the horse for his father Jim.
4) Aintree features in the song “Thank U Very Much,” a hugely popular hitfor the Liverpool group Scaffold – whose members included Paul McCartney’s brother Mike McGear – in 1967. The true meaning of the oft-quoted line “Thank you very much for the Aintree Iron” remains a subject of much dispute. McGear, who wrote the song, has so far declined to publicly explain its meaning.
5) At the 2014 Crabbie’s Grand National meeting, Aintree’s official travel partner is the Dominican Republic. The person voted “Best Dressed Racegoer” wins a luxury holiday to that country.
6) Having fallen out with BBC over the rights to radio broadcasting of the Grand National, for the 1952 running, Mrs. Mirabel Topham brought in her own team of “commentators” to describe the race – with comically awful results. The BBC resumed its radio coverage in 1953.
7) The Grand National was first broadcast on television by the BBC in 1960.
8) In 1955, the water jump was omitted from the Grand National course on account of the heavy going.
9) The 1929 Grand National had 66 runners, the biggest field in British racing history. They started in two rows. (Nowadays, following the imposition of safety limits, the maximum field size is 40, although there are groups who contend that this figure should be lowered on safety grounds.)
10) The first female rider to take part in the Grand National was Charlotte Brew in 1977. Her mount Barony Fort started at 200-1 and refused four fences from home. To date, the best placing for a lady rider is third: Katie Walsh on Seabass in 2012.
Tomorrow: The Aintree experience for the racegoer