It was billed as the race the world stops to watch. In the end, the Crabbie’s Grand National was the race we stopped to watch the World.
Rule The World, to be exact. Muddy marvel and fairytale winner of Aintree’s £1million spectacular for the unlikely triumvirate of man called Mouse, a teenager and the boss of a budget airline.
The Mouse is the nickname that has been bestowed on the winning horse’s veteran Tipperary trainer Michael Morris since his days as a jockey when he twice rode the winner of the Queen Mother Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival. The teenager is living proof that if one Mullins doesn’t get you, another one will. Nephew of prolific trainer Willie Mullins, 19-year-old David Mullins, the winning jockey. And the airline boss is Michael O’Leary, guru of Ryanair and one half of a partnership, alongside brother Eddie, that oversees the Gigginstown House Stud operation, owners of Rule The World.
Some of you might be familiar with ‘The Mouse That Roared’, a 1955 novel that spawned a film, starring Peter Sellers, a stage play and even adaptations on TV and radio. It had nothing on this. The 2016 update starred the real Mouse, celebrating an emotion-charged victory less than a year after losing his 30-year-old son, Christopher, who died of accidental carbon monixide poisoning at his apartment while travelling in Argentina. It starred a horse daring to choose the National for his maiden victory over fences to become the first novice to taste Aintree glory since Mr What in 1958. It starred a jockey, exuding coolness personified as he guided home the winner in his very first ride in the race. And it starred owners completing a unique treble of successes in the past month as Rule The World followed in the footsteps of Don Cossack in the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup and Rogue Angel, also trained by Morris, in the Boylesports Irish Grand National.
Quite how the Aintree National continues to unearth such compelling scripts is beyond logic. But long may it continue to shine the spotlight on characters such as Morris, a chain-smoking, oft disheveled horseman, who had a lot to live up to when first brought into this world three days before the 1951 National was won by nine-year-old mare Nickel Coin. After all, his dad was a lord of the realm (Baron Killanin), later to become distinguished president of the International Olympic Committee. Mouse is as far removed from the airs and graces of the House Of Lords as it is possible to get, yet I think he’s surpassed the old man now, don’t you? After near-misses with former Aintree stalwarts Attitude Adjuster and Lastofthebrownies, his National enriches a training CV already adorned by a Gold Cup (War Of Attrition in 2006) and six other Festival wins.
Mullins has been catching the eye all season as a polished pilot making rapid progress. No wonder Ryanair’s O’Leary entrusted him with the controls on Rule The World once their retained rider, Bryan Cooper, had opted for stablemate First Lieutenant instead. Blessed with fine hands, his temperament and decision-making bely his tender years.
The whole story has a feelgood factor to it, and also quickly quietened the row about horses that failed to make the cut which clouded the build-up to Saturday’s race. Among the suggestions to ensure that previous winners, such as PINEAU DE RE, and National trial winners, such as BISHOPS ROAD, got in was that novices should not be allowed to take part.
The idea that the rules should be manipulated to shoehorn certain horses into the National is reprehensible. It would be the sport’s equivalent of match-fixing. This is a fiercely competitive race, not a lap of honour for ex-champions. I have sympathy for the introduction of a penalty system that guarantees horses running close to their correct marks, thus avoiding the unsatisfactory example thrown up on Saturday when runner-up THE LAST SAMURI found himself with a 12lb advantage. But as for the notion of win-and-you’re-in races, imagine the furore if the ante-post favourite, let’s say an up-and-coming chaser rated 147, was denied a place simply to squeeze into the line-up a 12-year-old who had plodded his way through bottomless ground at Haydock Park off a featherweight.
Rule The World’s success also went some way towards appeasing the critics who insist the National is animal-cruelty on legs. The care and patience afforded to the gelding after he had twice fractured his pelvis in recent years underlines the enormous affection and dedication racing gives to its equine masters.
For the fourth year running, all the horses returned home safely. The modifications and improvements to the course and fences clearly worked again, yet still produced a race that was a captivating spectacle, almost a throwback to a bygone era. Modern-day Nationals can be one-dimensional affairs in which the principals hit the front from some way out and stay there. Here, something was happening at every fence. As the drama unfolded, you couldn’t take your eyes off it.
Let’s not kid ourselves, though. The risk and danger remain and there will come a time when the Grand National must adapt again to meet the ever-evolving demands of the public. When that day arrives, racing must not shirk its responsibilities and must not allow the race to hold the sport to ransom. But for now, the National remains its showcase event. As Saturday proved, it still Rules The World.
Teatime start pays dividends for TV viewers
Switching to a new teatime start for the Grand National paid dividends. For it contributed to a massive rise in the number of people watching on terrestrial TV. The much-criticised, but actually admirable, coverage of Channel 4, attracted a staggering audience-share of 59% and a peak total of ten million viewers, underlining the popularity of the iconic race. It’s less clear how welcome the later start was for racegoers at the course, who had to endure horribly cold and wet weather, particularly those in Tattersalls where an uncovered, rudimentary viewing mound must surely be replaced by a proper grandstand soon. The pain of their wait for the National was not eased by the three Grade One races on the support card being unattractive betting heats, even if they yielded impressive winners.