This is my first visit to Aintree and the Grand National. Excitement is high for a race that defines “iconic” in the equine world, and I hope that the real thing will live up to 35 years worth of TV incarnations. I meet Simon at the Jimmy Tarbuck Premier Inn in Liverpool. Our room is not yet ready so he has been shepherded into the adjoining Brewers Fayre to enjoy the spectacle that is ‘The Fun Factory!’, a padded cell where a kiddies party is in raucous spirits. He begins proceedings by putting on a comedy Scouse accent in a pub full of Scousers – nice one, mate.
So my tour enters it’s fifth week with perhaps the most famous race of all. There is an incredible buzz about the place. The ladies of Liverpool have made an extraordinary effort to wear virtually nothing in the arctic, windswept tundra, and desperately clutch chiffon fabric and vodka-tonics to themselves in order to protect what is left of their goose-pimpled modesty.
There are three poor fellows who have been given the task of stopping punters from congregating in the icy blast between the Queen Mother and Earl Of Derby stands, although it’s hard to fathom why you would choose to linger here if you weren’t filming the latest Attenborough documentary for Life In The Chiller. Simon asks one of them “Is it cold here?”. The steward kindly refrains from punching my friend square in the face, and replies simply “Yes” with astonishing cheeriness. Simon pulls the same stunt a few races later but I sense the humour of the situation is draining from the chap, along with his will to live.
A friend Mike had told me that his grandfather always said number 7 wins the first race. Is this the stunningly simple system I have been missing? Not here at Aintree apparently, as number 7 is a non-runner. We back the Ruby Walsh ridden Nichols Canyon who gets us off to a flying start. Easy game this. We decide to celebrate our success in the Doom Bar Bar, which sounds uncannily like a Beach Boys song. To add to this theme they’ve put down some sand and decking, and stuck a reggae number on repeat.
We get chatting to an Irish couple. Jerome likes Sizing Granite in the next. They live south of Dublin and Liz urges us to do the Punchestown Festival some time. I get particularly animated as I recount a quite extraordinary four days at the Galway Festival many years ago and manage to sweep the remnants of a pint off the table onto my trouser leg. I immediately think of the technique of applying salt to red wine on a carpet, and smother the bitter-stained suit in sand before carrying on my dissertation on Galway. Jerome looks slightly askance at my new sand-suit, but is persuaded to carry on the conversation for a while before we have to rush off to get our bets on. We should have listened to his sage advice as Sizing Granite wins like a good thing.
I spot two young lads sporting One Man scarves and curse myself for not having brought mine, more as a mark of camaraderie than a preventative for frostbite. We get chatting and I notice they are following a large bear of a man who is ambling resolutely towards the paddock. “That’s our grandfather, John Hales!” We reminisce about the great grey who was owned by the great big man in front of us, and discuss the chances of one of their newer shades of grey, Unioniste, in the National. I wish them luck.
The Media Centre is next to the parade ring and I attempt entry by waving my complimentary admission badge. No joy. I explain to the man that we have received press accreditation and triumphantly unfold my photocopied letter as proof. He stands firm. It may not have helped my cause that the Doom Bar Bar visits have made it tricky to pronounce the phrase and I may have said “cress appreditation”; I’m not sure.
Simon decides that to raise his core temperature above zero we shall have to go inside, and we get chatting to two girls from Belfast. One is a showjumper and I talk about my visit to the Racehorse Sanctuary. The other has had a dream about the National. In her dream she had backed Night In Milan, but he didn’t win. I obviously ask who did win.
“Mon Parrain,” she says “but for some reason he was called Don Parrain.”
This isn’t making any sense at all, which to be fair to her is often the way with dreams, but I decide not to back either of them in the big race, unless Mon Parrain has suddenly changed his name by deed poll to Don Parrain, but I doubt a horse can do that.
We secure a space in the sun on the Earl Of Derby (not literally) as I’m worried that Simon will be frozen solid to the steps by the end of the race if he’s in shade, and drink in the anticipation of the start that is forming horse by horse in front of us. They are away first time and the crowd gives an enormous cheer to rival the first race roar at Cheltenham. The people in our vicinity on the steps are all shouting different names, and different groans and hurrahs punctuate the 30 different fences. Almost half the field complete the race, and despite worries at the Canal Turn, all horses come back safe and sound. Everyone is a winner, although almost everyone is a loser as Many Clouds was relatively unconsidered at 25/1 after his disappointing run in the Gold Cup. Our fistful of bets produced not a single return, but it truly was an awesome spectacle.
The Grand National has met and even exceeded my lofty expectations. Everyone is here to have a great time, win or lose. Despite its grand scale, there are places to go, sights to see and people to meet. Plenty of those people are drunk, some of them roaringly so, but there is not one hint of discord about the place. It is a rampant and joyful party where disparate groups meld to celebrate the history and tradition of this unique race. The reciprocal relationship smacks me in the face like the hypothermic wind as we leave the stands for the last time – we are all here because of the Grand National, but the race exists because of us, and our willingness to embrace the most glorious of frivolities that our sport has to offer.