If Nicola Sturgeon gets her way, Scotland will soon be marching out of the United Kingdom. But at Aintree, three equally redoubtable ladies voted in and wanted to be very much part of one of the UK’s greatest institutions.
The Randox Health Grand National was delivered by trainer Lucinda Russell and owners Belinda McClung and Deborah Thomson, who didn’t even have to call a referendum to vote yes for ONE FOR ARTHUR, polished winner of the £1 million showpiece.
The 8yo provided Scotland with only its second winner in the history of the iconic race, 38 years after its first, RUBSTIC. And Russell, McClung and Thomson ensured that Aintree’s annually momentous Ladies’ Day on the Friday was followed swiftly by another, as indeed it had been preceded by a third thanks to jockey Lizzie Kelly’s success on TEA FOR TWO in the big race of the opening exchanges of the three-day festival, the Betway Bowl.
If ever evidence was needed to prove that racing is a more accessible, more level playing-field for women than most sports, this was it.
Russell might have one of the most illustrious names in Jumps racing as her partner. And Peter Scudamore might have ridden the winners of 1,678 winners on his way to being champion jockey eight times. But she is very much the boss of the stables, tucked away in the beautiful countryside of Kinross, half-an-hour from Edinburgh Airport. In fact, Scu matches her only in the stakes of affability and dedication to the horses in the yard.
Similarly, McClung and Thomson, friends since school, boast an admirably independent and determined streak. Their ownership tag of Two Golf Widows reflects the fact that their other halves spend most of their leisure time on the fairways and greens, so one day “after a few gins at Kelso races”, they decided to plough their own sporting furrow and fork out £60,000 between them for a racehorse. The rest, as One For Arthur ensured on Saturday, is history.
I don’t buy into the theory that such a tale will encourage “ordinary folk”, whoever they might be, that they too can own a National winner. McClung and Thomson are clearly ladies not lacking in wealth or class. Not for them Ladies’ Day morning spent in some back-street tanning salon and nail bar in Liverpool city centre. But nevertheless, it is still the kind of heart-warmer so synonymous with the National, and one that capped a race made memorable for all the right reasons. Not least for the quality of One For Arthur’s performance, unleashed in a hold-up style very rarely seen in the modern version of the contest.
Most Aintree victors of recent years have raced close to the pace, which often ranges from fast to frenetic, particularly on ground with Good in its description, as it did on Saturday. But off a gallop no more than even and sensible, jockey Derek Fox was able to execute the epitome of a waiting ride, sitting quietly as the son of Milan lobbed and jumped to his heart’s content. Appropriately, on the 40th anniversary of the hat-trick win of Ginger McCain’s legend, he also tracked similar, wide tramlines to the ones created all those years ago by the mighty Red Rum.
Even as late as the second Canal Turn, One For Arthur had a mere handful of rivals behind him, but from the fourth last, Fox triggered the kind of scything manoeuvre through and past opponents that had worked to such ruthless effect when he landed the Betfred Classic Chase on his previous outing at Warwick in January. On the long run from the third last, across the Melling Road, the 8yo made ground with such powerful panache that he actually jumped the second last upsides the favourite, BLAKLION, who had shot many lengths clear of him just seconds earlier. From there, his copper-bottomed stamina saw to the rest.
It was a beautifully judged piece of horsemanship by the 24-year-old Fox, particularly as it was his first experience of the race and particularly as he had broken his left wrist and right collarbone in a fall at Carlisle a month earlier and had only just been passed fit to ride again. Well done to him for acknowledging the role played by the Jack Berry House rehabilitation centre in Malton in steering him back to prime condition. Given that the centre is operated and funded by the Injured Jockeys’ Fund, even many of those who didn’t back One For Arthur can safely say they had a telling financial hand in his victory by taking part in the annual ritual of buying the charity’s Christmas cards.
A word or two on the placed horses too. What a trooper CAUSE OF CAUSES has developed into. The winner of three different races at the Cheltenham Festival, he could not be faulted in almost turning Jamie Codd into the first amateur to ride the winner since Marcus Armytage in 1990. And what a trooper SAINT ARE is too. In his 12th race at Aintree, his seventh over the unique fences and his fourth National, he almost matched his heroic second to the ill-fated Many Clouds in 2015.
Blaklion deserves heaps of praise as well. Rarely have I seen a horse travel and jump through a National as efficiently and effortlessly as Nigel Twiston-Davies’s 8yo. Indeed it was that, rather than a deliberate move by jockey Noel Fehily, for which he has been harshly criticised, that sent him spinning into a long lead from the third last. The knockers reckon he went too soon, Fehily reckoned he tied up two out, but Blaklion received a hefty bump from the winner at that obstacle which possibly cost him rhythm. He was still keeping on at the death and would be very interesting if handicapped attractively enough for a return tilt next year.
Willie Mullins’s PLEASANT COMPANY might also be one to note if coming back in 2017, given how nicely he was going until making a shuddering blunder at the second Valentine’s Brook that almost ejected Ruby Walsh. Similar bad luck at Becher’s Brook afflicted DEFINITLY RED, who suffered saddle-dislodging interference by the fall of THE YOUNG MASTER on the first circuit, and UCELLO CONTI, who was hacking on the inner until intimidated by Saint Are veering across his path which forced Daryl Jacob out of the side door on the second circuit.
These were clear examples that misfortune still plays a key role in the nine or ten minutes it takes to run a Grand National. Thankfully, such misfortune no longer stretches to tragedy as, for the fifth year in succession, all runners returned home safe and sound. And from a PR perspective, given the race’s monumental worldwide profile, that remains utterly crucial. There was a time not so long ago when many aficionados feared that racing was being held to ransom by the National and the black and bleak headlines it generated, which bore no resemblance to the everyday life and image of the sport. But now we are inching ever closer to the point where we can have confidence in the race. Yes, it remains an anomalous one-off and must always be treated as such, but it is one more likely to do good for racing than cause harm.
I have no doubt its new-found safety can be attributed to the modification of the fences and the insistence of a certain amount of give in the ground, the guarantee of which has been perfected by the watering policy of clerk of the course Andrew Tulloch. I walked the track on the first morning of the meeting and it is palpably obvious that the fences are not as formidable as they were once were, particularly one, two, four and five of each circuit, and it is pleasing that the dreaded drop to some, most notably Becher’s, is steadily being eliminated. Spectacular falls, which were so integral to the fascination of Nationals of the past, have no place in today’s world, and neither have the accidents that horses were tricked into by the callous ruse of a steep landing-side drop.
Softer and safer it might be, but the Grand National retains massive appeal among the general public. It is estimated that a quarter of the UK’s entire population had a bet on this year’s renewal. It also remains the centrepiece of the three-day meeting, even though the rest of the 21-race action is now unmissable fare. The quality and strength in depth of many of the Grade One races suffered this year in the absence of Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott, who kept their big guns at home to concentrate on their irresistible duel for the Irish trainers’ title. It is worth recalling, for example, that Mullins saddled six winners, six runners-up and three thirds at the 2016 Aintree festival. However, the lack of a powerful Irish presence (they were 0 from 42 runners at the meeting) opened the door for UK trainers who had been battered into submission at Cheltenham -- and Colin Tizzard, for one, took full advantage, celebrating five winners to put the seal on a career-best campaign.
It must also be said that the shortage of strength in depth in some areas did not prevent six of the favourites for the 11 Grade Ones getting beat, and combined with the richly competitive handicaps, the meeting was not an easy time for punters. From a personal perspective, I cannot remember returning home with a profit from so few winners. To that curiosity I owe One For Arthur. Please forgive my self-indulgence for just a second, but when you’ve put up a horse as far back as January 15 as a likely National winner, advertised it through these very columns and supported it up with readies at 40/1, I think you’re entitled to a pat on the back. Not for many years have I exuded as much excitement in the stands as I did when Saturday’s race unfolded over its final mile, and I hope you shared it with me. It took me back to Highland Wedding, the first winner I ever had a flutter on, in this same race at the tender age of nine. Ah, the wonder of the Grand National. Long may it weave its magic.