GRAND NATIONAL 2014 -- safety first, alongside Long Run, in Aintree’s £1 million showpiece
It’s the day when mums, grandmas, baby Billy and even Tyson the pet dog have a flutter or pick out a horse in the sweep.
It is also the day, though whisper it softly, when racing’s aficionados hold their breath, cross their fingers and pray that all the horses come home safely.
Yes, it can only be Grand National Day. A celebration of the world’s greatest steeplechase. A ritual firmly fixed in the country’s culture and psyche as a major sporting event and national institution.
Forty horses. Thirty fences. Almost four-and-a-half miles of thrills and spills at the unique Aintree track. Yes, come 4.15 pm this Saturday, a nation will be glued to the telly. More than 600 million people around the world will join us.
Behind the facade of the spectacle, the glamour and the glory sits a very nervous racing industry.
For while the National can be racing’s asset, attracting new, enthusiastic fans to the sport, it can also be its liability, relaying tragic stories of danger, injury and even death.
After the tragedies of four equine fatalities at an attritional Cheltenham Festival last month, jumps racing badly needs a controversy-free National.
The authorities have bowed to the critics and improved safety. Rules have been brought in to ensure that horses not up to the task cannot compete. Many fences have been modified. Most are now more forgiving, reducing the risk of accident.
Work still needs to be done, in my view. Drop fences have no place on modern racecourses. They are designed to trick horses, not to test their jumping ability. They are potential death traps and should be obliterated.
Whether or not that will ever happen remains to be seen. But there is no doubt the Grand National is very close to becoming fit for purpose again. Capable of meeting the demands and standards of a discerning 21st century public.
This is clearly reflected in the latest sponsorship deal with Crabbie’s, which will make the 2014 renewal the first £1 million National.
It is also reflected in the quality of the entries, which continues to rise -- to the extent that no fewer than 15 of Saturday’s runners carry official ratings of 147 or higher.
No doubt this has been helped by the decision of handicapper Phil Smith to compress the weights, thus encouraging connections of higher-class horses to run, safe in the knowledge that they won’t have to concede lumps of weights.
I just wonder, however, if this Saturday will be the day the compression of the weights backfires. Because I cannot come up with any sane or logical argument to keep LONG RUN out of the winner’s enclosure, granted his share of luck through the race.
This is one of the greatest chasers the country has seen. Not only a Cheltenham Gold Cup winner and a two-time King George winner, but also a six-time Grade One winner.
This is a horse -- indeed the only horse bar Imperial Commander -- capable of slugging it out successfully with the mighty Kauto Star and Denman. His eclipse of those two veterans in the 2011 Gold Cup must rank as one of the most pulsating races in the history of the sport.
That win propelled Long Run to a mark of 182. Yet for this Saturday’s National, that mark has cascaded down to 160.
The reason for the drop is three laboured, lifeless efforts in the opening two months of this season, including at his beloved Kempton.
However, they are the only times in his career he has failed to make the first three. And, signficantly only a fortnight after the release of the Aintree weights, he bounced back to form last time with a spring-heeled triumph at Kelso.
OK, it was a contest Long Run had every right to win. But it’s worth remembering that the runner-up, Knockara Beau, is a Kelso specialist and was fresh from his conquering of Big Buck’s in the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham.
Have we written off Nicky Henderson’s French-bred too early? After all, it’s only 12 months since he went down with all guns blazing in the Gold Cup and then finished a whisker behind Gold Cup runner-up Sir Des Champs at Punchestown.
If we have, then don’t be surprised to see him take Saturday’s race apart. He is still only nine years old, his stamina is copper-bottomed and while many continue to crab his jumping, this is a horse that has never fallen.
If that’s not enough, consider this. His half-brother Liberthine took to the Aintree fences like a duck to water, winning the 2006 Topham Trophy and finishing fifth in the National itself the following year.
On both occasions, he was ridden by Sam Waley-Cohen, Long Run’s pilot on Saturday and the holder of a phenomenal record over the National fences.
Waley-Cohen, 31-year-old son of owner Robert Waley-Cohen,has been second, fourth and fifth in the National, been first and third in the Topham and been first twice, second twice and fourth in the Foxhunters’ Chase.
In the face of such overwhelming evidence, I am happy to ride a coach and horses through my weakness for trends. Trends that say it is impossible to win the National carrying a welter burden of 11-9.
Equally, I am happy to forego my annual tendency to produce for you, good punters, a Pinsticker’s Guide to all the runners.
I have respect for last year’s Welsh National winner MONBEG DUDE, the 2012 Irish National winner LION NA BEARNAI, dark hold-up horse PINEAU DE RE, this season’s Becher Chase winner CHANCE DU ROY and two challengers who have long been considered National types, David Pipe’s THE PACKAGE and Willie Mullins’s PRINCE DE BEAUCHENE. I would genuinely fear last year’s third, TEAFORTHREE, had he not been forced to endure such a gruelling prep race in the Gold Cup. And of the outsiders, I fancy Dessie Hughes’s RAZ DE MAREE to outrun his inflated odds.
But only one runner counts this year. With safety at the forefront of racing’s mind, the safest bet for the 2014 Grand National is Long Run to win in this 1-2-3-4-5:
1 LONG RUN, 2 MONBEG DUDE, 3 PINEAU DE RE, 4 LION NA BEARNAI, 5 THE PACKAGE.