The Saturday Sermon – Aintree Grand National Day

Good Evening from the Major who retires from a day on the fine Worcestershire land which was baked in a pleasant spring sun allowing the Major to lay about the summer-house with fence brush and paint in reckless abandon.

Twelve hours in the fresh air and the job is done.  Not exactly professional but much tidier and some relief for the sun bleached wood.  Working alone all day in my own thoughts was most pleasing, radio playing, physical labour, water, cap; lunch of hams and cheese.

Good god, tuning into the racing results was shocking mind.  My post for Friday returned awful results, not a sniff.  It seems my winning streak is at an end and I post today my thoughts and you can do with them as you wish, as always.  Free and unhinged.

The only race I came in to watch was the Topham and what carnage that was.  It reminded me of my apathy over these races on the National course.  Of which the Grand National is by far the worse.  Once again, I am not going to cover the National, it is not my thing.

At this time of year, folk who have my card marked (good with the bottle, mischief in the eye and a regular gambler on the horses) ask me for a tip for the Grand National.  They know I won’t have the winner, they don’t expect me to enhance their wealth in monetary terms, they just want to ask someone connected to them to give them a pointer, to make it a better story and raise their enjoyment of it.

The requests always catch me cold a little.  They are normally from people who would never bet on racing and something about these unlikely punters sharpen my own views on the race itself.  It is the national communal interest in the race, the mood, the media; they are engaged and people bet because they want to add their own spice, or remember someone, or just for damn traditions sake.

I try to mask my hesitation but it is there.  You see, I think the Grand National, is an awful advert for our sport.  I know my position is likely riddled with holes, I am conscious of an hypocrisy and I know there is another view but I shall try my best, a poor best I fear, to explain.

I am a hardened racing fan.  I love our sport because it is exotic, understanding the language of it is an art in itself.  I love it too because it plays you like a violin, through punchy Vivaldi numbers as your equine athletes strain sinew and perform in ways that stop your heart (Un de Sceaux, Frankel, Sprinter Sacre, Masterminded, Special Tiara even at Kempton! et al).  It then drops into Adagio for Strings sparing you no comfort as you watch some of these animals give their lives for the sport.

I am not a prude.  As I always say of arguments, people need to look at matters without seeking binary answers.  About a year ago, Ruby gave some quote about them being animals and not pets, caused a stir at the time.  He was right and wrong.  Of course he was right and the people in the sport have to be pragmatic and they, more than us supporters, live with the risks much more closely.

Yet, he was wrong in a crucial regard.  Whether or not you would like to see the racing footprint of fans grow, within the existing set of followers, consciousness of the equine risk is growing and appetite for the harms of the sport diminishing.

This is consistent with the world in general.  We are wealthier, healthier and better educated.  We are less violent.  We care more, we can afford to.  Fifty years ago, men smoked in pubs, it was illegal to be gay and racial discrimination was far more widespread and acceptable, you would live ten years less than expected today too.

Remember George Washington’s 2000 guineas?  I loved that horse, had his own way of doing things.  Wouldn’t enter the winners enclosure afterwards!  I also remember watching horrible images of him breaking down on the track in the States in utter slop.  It hurt to think of him going like that, he deserved a green field, a string of classy mares to breed with and an easy retirement afterwards.

Granit Jack.  That one got me too.  He was cruising into his Paddy Power and I think it was the brutality of the fall but it stayed with me, long, as some of these things will.

Safety.  This is why I am no fan of the National.  I read the report a few years ago, saw the improvements and the last couple of races have gone pretty well, all considered.  Yet, the course and conditions are still engineered (without the intention of the result) to be unsafe to race on.  That is not to knock the efforts already made.  The lowering of some drops, the levelling of landing areas, the softening of the fence core, the new start; all are improvements.

25%-30% of tomorrow runners will fall.  Unless the new safety measures have made a more significant effect than I believe, then it is as unlikely as not that one of the runners will die between 4.15 and 4.27.  This compares to a death in approximately every 25 races in normal National Hunt racing.

I know many of you will disagree with me and please feel free to comment below.  This is a gentlemen’s club so no riff raft please.  I am not abdicating from the sports risk and I cannot abide those that are against the sport who quasi-celebrate fatality as a proof of their argument.

I recognise that my position could be reasonably criticised as hypocritical, I cannot deny the claim.  My objection is purely on quantum and not utter moral, else I could not follow National Hunt at all.

When those tourists to our sport, ask me for a national tip, wanton glint to stray into racings’ heady environ; how can I explain this?  How can I say that the Grand National is a bit of a cartoon race, generally not our best horses and not really a fair contest but requiring a larger than normal dollop of luck?

I’ll probably give them The Druids Nephew and move on.

Aintree Tips (Just no Grand National)

1.30 – The Novice Hurdle Tip

Lots of improving sorts to pick through and Parlour Games and Nichols Canyon boost solid Neptune form but I am wary of Cheltenham form at Aintree.  A tight track, opponents fully prepped for the campaign and hard races just weeks ago all cause upset.  I back some but happily skip many looking for value.

The two I like are As De Mee (12/1) and Seedling.  The former is a Paul Nicholls handicap winner who boasts a similar profile to Lac Fontana, last years winner.  He won a Sandown Grade 3 handicap last time under a hefty burden and that gives him the nod for me.  Seedling is my risk, Greatrex is having an excellent campaign and this one fell before we knew anything in the Supreme, though he was fancied that day.

2.05 – The Maghull Novice Chase

I put Gods Own up as a horse to follow (albeit for the Champion Chase) at the start of the year and so was rather chuffed to see this highly experienced novice chase home Un de Sceaux in the Arkle.  Whether other horses burned their chances following UDS at breakneck pace, hard to tell but he was behind for a lot of the way and I can argue that his finish was passing beaten foes.  Either way, I want something else.

I like Sizing Granite a lot, he looks a player but although he has won his only start on good, being a Milan sort, I think his preferred ground will be softer.

Anyway, I might be ended to play Traffic Fluide anyway.  The way he has been winning his races suggests to me that he could be a top class player.  His trainer skipped Cheltenham altogether but has decided to come for this and at 9/2, I want a decent slice.

2.50pm – The Stayers Hurdle Tip

I really was not prepared for what Cole Harden (11/4) achieved at Cheltenham, I was very taken with his all the way win.  Amazing the effect of a wind operation on some horses!  Sapphire du Rheu did everything to boost the form yesterday, although he was converted to fences.

Zarkander bids to reverse form and backers will be hoping the shuddering error in the World Hurdle will give some hope.  I am not sure myself.

5.10pm – The Conditional Jockey Handicap Hurdle

I jump to the conditionals and go with the most upcoming of them. Sean Bowen partners Dormello Mo, a 12/1 shot.  I thought the Plumpton win was OK and frankly, in this environment, a good jockey and a champion trainer and 12/1 is too good to ignore.

That is it for horses for me on Grand National day.

In the football, what a game at Villa Park in the week.  In the topsy turvy world of Villa, it is hard to know what to expect but I think backing them at 5/1 to win at Spurs makes a lot of sense.  At this stage of the season, quality (on which they are very short) matters less than togetherness, organisation and will.  Villa will surely show some of that at their former bosses club and 5/1 is too big against a whimsical Spurs team.

Bolton struggled against Blackpool so might find Norwich have too many guns for them (11/13).

The Martin Hill is a yankee on the horses.

May your dinner be simple and taken in good family company.  Those bonds need nurturing, they will sustain you in your weaker times.

Courage, roll the dice.

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