Grand National morning. Christmas, Easter, the first day of the summer holidays. All rolled into one for me. Butterflies. Many a time have I been at Aintree shortly after dawn on National morning. Dew on the ground. Horses pulling out for a stretch of the legs. The smell of bacon. Coffee out of polystyrene was never much good. Stilted conversations between nervous connections. All plans have been made. No last minute tweaking to be done. But better to be doing something rather than nothing as the hours roll by as if mired in treacle.
Gone are the days of jockeys on trays sliding down the stairs at the Adelphi Hotel on the eve of the big race. No breathalysers in the weighing room back then. If there had been, they would have been calling for volunteers from the crowd to fill the saddles of the forty plus field. Sleep a wasted luxury for the big race jockeys in the “good old days.” Dutch courage needed by many. And taken by all.
We live in a less cavalier age, but the thrill of this mighty race still holds us in it’s thrall. I will never forget the first time that I watched the BBC coverage. 1973. A race and a racecourse that were on it’s last legs. But I knew nothing of the Topham politics and the crumbling facilities. All that interested me was this magnificent Australian chaser called Crisp who filled the screen, and had me on the edge of my seat. Peter O’Sullevan, Michael O’Hehir, John Hanmer, Julian Wilson. All taking turns to call his imperious romp over the vast fences. Julian Wilson – “I have never seen a horse this far clear in the National!”.
Extraordinary, compelling, exhausting, draining, captivating. I could hardly breath. Over the Melling Road, two to jump. Red Rum running on, but still a furlong behind. Up and over the last. A healthy lead still. But then the agony. The drunken lurch to the left. Richard Pitman imploring his brave mount to hang on. We all were. The big horse out on his feet. Steadier legs on a day old foal. Gone. Nothing more to give. Rolling past the elbow like a punch drunk boxer who has taken more than one too many hits to the head. The game is up, but still we willed him home. Peter O’Sullevan’s commentary floating through the decades. “He’s going to get up. Red Rum is going to win the Grand National. Red Rum has just snatched it from Crisp.”
Exhausted. But hooked. The race of a lifetime. The race that set the path of my life. The villain of that piece became the saviour of the race. Year after year, he turned up in those famous purple and gold colours. Year after year, we were treated to windswept scenes on Southport beach as Red Rum took charge of his lad Billy Ellison. Year after year, Ginger McCain took centre stage for a week or two. Years before the breathalyser, years before political correctness. Great days, great memories, the greatest race.
Red Rum’s third Grand National took the roof off that faltering Grandstand, but provided further impetus to the renovation of the old place. So close to being consigned to the history books, Aintree Racecourse today stands tall as one of the finest tracks in the land. Ladbrokes deserve enormous credit for pulling the place back from the precipice, and Jockey Club Racecourses then picked up the baton.