Sport

Picking a winner in the Grand National is still as tough as it used to be

Grand National-winning jockey Derek Fox kisses a ringer for the Uefa Cup after his success on One for Arthur on Saturday
Picture by PA

THE first time I ever ducked into a bookies was Grand National Day, 1984. More fumes than a Vatican barbecue, the vista ahead was equally eye-watering and enchanting.

Refusing to collapse and suffocate en route to the dockets was a rite of passage on a proud west Belfast highway boasting three dream factories inside four furlongs. That was what you called infrastructure.

Despite being under 10 years old, 50 pence each way (10 returned Coke bottles) on favourite Greasepaint was staked through the pungent violet haze. No questions asked, not a flying one given. I suppose I was a similar age to most horses in the field after all.

The ‘each way’ approach had been explained by a battle-stained uncle in the build-up. Back home in front of the box, it didn’t fully work out as planned, though, as we now head over to Peter O’Sullevan...

“And it’s Greasepaint on the far side, Hallo Dandy on the near side! There’s nothing between them as they come to the line, Hallo Dandy on the near side is just gonna win it, and Hallo Dandy has won it!!...”

Three things happened after big Greasepaint did an equine ‘Jimmy White’ at Aintree for the second year on the hoof.

Desperate Dan and Korky the Cat were now dead to me. The skimpy profit made on ‘second place’ was confiscated to buy bread, milk and 10 Regal. And empty Coke bottles were returned every Saturday until that lucrative ‘brass for glass’ scheme died a sorry death.

A lifetime of crushed dockets down the track and across the Melling Road, a National winner remained no more than a (Martin and David) Pipe dream on my watch.

And so it was down to the serious craic of ignoring form, odds, handicap, trainer and jockey before using the horses’ names and little other than gut feeling to throw digital money at Saturday’s renewal.

ITV was where the magic was all going to happen in 19 degrees of springtime sunshine, dapper anchor Ed Chamberlin insisted. Former race winners AP McCoy and Mick Fitzgerald added the expert analysis to Ed’s relentless jibber.

It was a day of anniversaries, we were reminded with dreamy flashbacks – 50 years after the Foinavon shock, 40 years after the Red Rum farewell and 20 years after the, er, jockeys’ stampede to the Adelphi for a drinking session following the Provos’ coded bomb warning.

Wistful slo-mos of old Nationals were rolled out by the trough load before Richard Hoiles was summoned to plough through all the runners and riders.

Thirty fences, four miles, 2.5 furlongs, Becher’s Brook, the Canal Turn, Valentine’s, Melling Road, the Chair the Water Jump and the Elbow were all pored over too as the spit of the Uefa Cup – the new trophy for the winner – was spirited into the parade ring with bizarre pomp.

Matt Chapman was in the betting ring to distil the day’s colour; blitzed scousers in silver suits mopping their barnets with clutches of 20 quid notes the oddest backscape.

It wasn’t long before Conor McGregor – who else? – fell half-naked out of a Take That video and into full view as ‘the Notorious’ tends to do. The UFC dose entered Aintree hanging out of a Rolls Royce Ghost and poured into an open Louis Vuitton shirt six sizes too small. A pair of visored sunglasses and some glittery silver plimsoles had this season’s narcissistic melter look down to a fine art.

“This will be life-changing for the jockey who wins it,” rasped Mick Fitz to Ed, just about recovered from that Adelphi sesh in ’97.

“You are part of history if you win this race.”

Horsewoman Alice Plunkett was all about the pre-parade ring, buzzing off the tension ‘in the horse’s locker room’ with minutes to go, while Victoria Pendleton and an off-duty vet wearing Prada or whatever told us all the horses were going to be well watered down and fanned after the race to keep them very cool and very alive.

Chappers was then sent on an edgy vox-pop dash along the rails to quickly ask lubricated punters ‘who wins the National?’.

“Madame, supreme in pink, who wins the National?” he was soon flirting with a woman in a pink dress.

“Um, BollocksLion,” she ventured as clear as day.

“Blaklion! Er, if ‘BALLYlion’ is running, we’re all in trouble,” he tried to recover before just legging it four-and-a-bit miles away from ‘Pink Woman’ instead.

Within 10 minutes, all 40 horses had arrived home safe for their cold showers. One for Arthur with Derek ‘Long Runs The’ Fox (inset) on board for his National bow had passed the post first at 14/1 to the delight of anyone lucky enough to drink Guinness or know an Arthur.

Whether this punter backed the Scottish-trained winner or backed the majority of the other 39 horses each way is not really the point.

‘When the fun stops, stop’, as a certain online bookmaker did warn us during every single ad break.

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