Robin Oakley

The magic of Aintree

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However hard some people try to make it a business, jump racing remains a sport and the Grand National its greatest race. Two fences out this year 20 horses were still in contention, ten still seemingly in with a serious chance of winning. As Ruby Walsh noted: ‘If that doesn’t convince people it’s a wonderful sport I’m not sure what will.’ Of the 32 starters 21 finished. Four horses unseated their riders and seven were pulled up but not one fell.

The Grand National
will remain a great race. But it is changing

Still in the battle two out were the three ‘story horses’. Latenightpass was point to point trainer Tom Ellis’s first runner under Rules, owned by his mother and ridden by his wife Gina Andrews. Kitty’s Light has been a beacon of hope, rallying Welsh trainer Christian Williams and his wife as their six-year-old, Betsy, battles leukaemia. Then there was Ain’t That A Shame, ridden for the sheer love of the game by 40-plus amateur David Maxwell. The honours went to I Am Maximus, trained by Willie Mullins, owned by J.P. McManus and ridden by an ice-cool Paul Townend who must have had white paint down his left-hand boot, so close had he kept to the running rail. But Kitty’s Light finished fifth, the first British-trained horse home. Ain’t That A Shame outran all expectations in a highly creditable sixth place and Latenightpass only faded in the long run-in to finish 12th. They didn’t win but they played their part in the Aintree tale.

I go to Cheltenham’s Festival to revel in the sheer quality of the talent, equine and human, on view. But I go to Aintree for fun. Nobody expresses it better than Tiger Roll’s now retired jockey, Davy Russell. He told a race-day lunch of going apprehensively to a top trainer for instructions on his first ride for him, who said: ‘Just go out and enjoy yourself.’ For the next 20 years he did, feeling he’d ‘been given a free licence in the pleasure park’.

Asked about Kitty’s Light’s chances, Davy declared with the generosity which is special to jump racing: ‘I’d willingly give back one of my Nationals for Kitty’s Light to win it’, adding: ‘Christian is great gas and great craic.’ So he is: just don’t listen to his 66-1 tips. Davy paid tribute, too, to the Liverpool crowd who so relish what is undoubtedly their Festival with a connection that the Aintree management works hard to maintain. Retiring chairman Nicholas Wrigley and his Jockey Club team deserve credit for that and for steering through tricky times post-Covid and after Rose Paterson’s tragic death.

They also do all the bells and whistles so well at Aintree and if you can’t enjoy yourself on Ladies Day watching the selfie-snapping girls parade down the pink carpet to the Red Rum enclosure, some wearing little more than a wisp of silk, a few feathers and a bucketful of bravado then you’ve no blood in your veins. Practicality shows with friends stooping to adjust each others’ wardrobe malfunctions – flimsy ankle straps not built for walking – like a cluster of RAC roadside mechanics.

One reveller met another version of that practicality in the early hours at a Liverpool night club. As his vitality sagged he enquired admiringly of a dancing partner’s stamina: ‘When do you go to bed?’ ‘Depends when I’m asked,’ she replied.

David Maxwell’s sixth place on Ain’t That A Shame gave particular pleasure. As we talked, shortly before he went out to tackle the National, he was cool enough to reflect on the wider world, musing that when AI took over and destroyed all our jobs then Liverpool was well equipped to become a natural hub for the entertainment we would need.

As for riding in the National: ‘The great thing about this sport is that we’re allowed to do it. We’re not breaking any laws and things that you do in sport nobody can take away from you.’ We were joined by Sam Waley-Cohen, victor in the 2022 National on Noble Yeats and like David a highly successful entrepreneur. It was as they began talking of races and fences that you saw that special glint in their eyes.

The Grand National will remain a great race. But it is changing and I worry whether it will continue giving us those story horses. A few years ago Kitty’s Light, who last season won three long-distance handicap chases, the Eider, the Scottish National and the Bet365 Gold Cup, would have been an obvious National winner. But last Saturday he was beaten on merit by four Irish-trained horses, all of which had previously won Grade Ones.

The easing of the National fences, the field size limit of 34, ownership economics and the Irish domination are making it harder for the little guys to become part of its great history and more likely that the big battalions of Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott will dominate its future. But they’ll still have to work at it: Willie had run 48 horses in the National since his previous success in 2005.