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Grand National - the greatest test of all

RADIO TIMES, April 2017

The Grand National is among the most exciting, demanding and yes, dangerous challenges in sport. Not as demanding as marathon running or international rugby, not as dangerous as motor racing or mountain climbing, but unique in its responsibility. Because it’s you and your horse.

God help me it’s now 52 years since I lined up at Aintree and, if you really want to know, I went to Walton Hospital and my horse, Time, cantered away scot-free (pardon the pun) and ended his days in happy retirement with Harry Llewellyn who had won Olympic Gold in Show Jumping on Foxhunter at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. I have been to just about every Grand National since that 1965 disaster and still find it the most thrilling event of the year.

For this is one of those tests that is an absolute: 40 horses, 40 fences over four and a half miles of the same ground over which the race has been galloped for 170 years… and counting. It is not as extreme as it was - there used to be a stone wall and a ploughed field to cross, and since my time the heavy drops have been eliminated on the jumps down to Bechers and all the fences, even the big ditch over which Time and I somersaulted on the second circuit, have had their structures made more forgiving. But it’s still at the end of the spectrum and as the 40 riders parade in front of the stand they know and we know that in the next quarter of an hour they and their horses will attempt something which will bring moments they and we will never forget.

The daunting nature of the challenge is part of its attraction. Those riders are the climbers looking up to the top of the mountain or, in the most collective example I have ever experienced, the thousands of expectant runners making their way to the start of the London Marathon. Before the day is out they will have been through the mincer in search of their dream. It will be hard. But it could be glorious. The Grand National riders have all that and they have something else. It’s not only their legs that are going to stretch – it’s those beneath them. And that can give a glory all its own.

For when it clicks, riding a horse over those big Aintree fences is as good as it gets. You are in a pack of half ton athletes drilling down to a five-foot obstacle at 30 miles an hour and your own mind and body is trying to inhabit every fibre of the being beneath you to perfect the leap ahead. Of course, it doesn’t always work. I remember awful carnage and loose horses and a struggle to stay upright on the run towards Bechers, but then dream becoming reality as the mighty posse drummed back towards the stands and Time flew over the huge Chair fence as if it was a hay bale. Everything was possible. Four fences later it wasn’t.

Not all horses are as lucky as Time was, not all jockeys are as fortunate as me. For the Grand National absolutely cannot be a risk-free zone, talk of a “safe Grand National” is the ultimate in oxymoron. It’s the danger that brings responsibility for the riders and in particular for the horses. Racing is what they have been bred and reared and trained for, but it’s we who choose to send them to the test. Simon Barnes would not put one of his horses through it. I would. I think the ordeal, although still hugely demanding, is as fair as it can be and the only change I would make is to adopt the instant dismount and wash down of the horse at the finish as they do at the end of the four-and-a-half mile cross country at the Badminton Horse Trials.

Simon has always written like an Olympian and has become an accomplished and skilful rider as well as a highly congenial companion. But I have been around horses all my life and I defer to no one, not even to him, in my affection for them. His view should be respected but I prefer mine. Life is too full of “safety first”. The Grand National stands as the greatest challenge in our game. Let’s take it.