Racing is reflecting on a wonderful Grand National meeting at Aintree. Here is the take of our resident racing expert, RICHARD ‘SCOOP’ SILVERWOOD.
1. Happy stories are just what the Doctor ordered
As long as the Grand National retains its capacity for uplifting, heartwarming stories, such as that of winning trainer Dr Richard Newland, it will be all right.
The National is the one race of the year planted firmly under the microscope of the national media. And given its risk to horse and rider, tabloid pens are sharpened every year now, ready to relate negative tales of controversy, uproar and outrage.
However, thankfully, for the second year running, the National yielded nothing untoward. Everyone returned home safe and sound, although Jack Doyle’s persistence on exahusted also-ran WAYWARD PRINCE was disturbing. So the media could happily concentrate on the unlikely tale of the first £1 million National being won by someone who trains only in his spare time -- at a tiny yard housing only 12 horses.
Dr Newland’s story resonated with many like-minded racing nuts. Here is a man who came into the sport purely as a devoted spectator. A man who has been making the annual pilgrimage to Aintree for 20 years, who has not missed a day at the Cheltenham Festival since 1982. Yet here he was, in 2014, saddling the winner of the most famous race in the world. With a horse sold to him by an owner who was happy to offload because the gelding was considered too high in the handicap.
It’s a story that might well have been based on ‘National Velvet’ itself, the glorious film that celebrated its 70th anniversary during last week’s meeting.
When Mickey Rooney died on Sunday, at the grand old age of 93, maybe he did so, safe in the knowledge that he could hand over the baton of dreams to Dr Newland.
2. Mixed messages from the new National fences
Racing has been divided over the modfications to the Grand National fences. In one corner sit those who insist they were necessary to improve safety. In the opposite corner sit those who rail against changes that detract from the race’s unique challenges.
So it will be interesting to assess the fallout after the mixed messages that emanated from last Saturday’s race?
For while all 39 runners avoided injury, 14 came down (fell or unseated), which was a 50% increase on 2013, and seven others failed to finish in what was an exacting, if exciting, race.
Curiously, while a top-class animal like LONG RUN suffered the first fall of his long career, the winner, PINEAU DE RE, stormed home despite a round of jumping littered with minor errors.
The sport should be grateful that the much-maligned RSPCA were content to concentate on visual evidence, rather than crude statistics.
They were pleased that the three-day meeting (332 runners in 21 races) yielded not one casualty on either course and praised the work undertaken by both the BHA and Aintree.
The track also deserved the bouquets that came its way for the Horse Comes First initiative, aimed at educating racegoers about the efforts to improve horse welfare.
The bottom line is probably that, contrary to the crackpot views of many, the National fences still take plenty of jumping. But they are also more forgiving than before. Mistakes can be rectified, Falls can be cushioned.
Lest we forget, it is little more than 20 years ago that horses could have drowned at Becher’s Brook.
3. Cheltenham Festival form worth its weight in gold
The well-worn theory that a hard race at the Cheltenham Festival scuppers your chances at Aintree three weeks later was blown out of the water.
Spearheaded by SILVINIACO CONTI, tired weakener up the hill of the Gold Cup but game winner of the Betfred Bowl, they formed a queue to frank Festival form.
The return of horses who won or ran well in the handicaps at Cheltenham was most noteworthy.
The likes of HOLYWELL, WHISPER, BALLYNAGOUR and DIAKALI made the successful step-up to Grade One class. The likes of LAC FONTANA and MA FILLEULE landed top prizes, and even the National winner himself, PINEAU DE RE, came from a fine run in the Pertemps Final at Cheltenham.
Solid novice form at the Festival was also rubberstamped by JOSSES HILL, UXIZANDRE and GUITAR PETE.
With the possible exception of O’FAOLAIN’S BOY, very few fancied horses appeared to leave behind their seasons at Prestbury Park. And his eclipse was predictable, given the awful record of RSA Chase winners at Aintree. With the possible exception of BALDER SUCCES and BEAT THAT, very few winners benefited from bypassing the Festival.
4. Fears that Fairyhouse might be stepping on Liverpool toes
Even without the big race itself, Aintree’s Grand National festival is now firmly established as a meeting of the highest quality.
So I might well be nitpicking when expressing slight worries about the strength in depth of some of the Grade One races last week.
However, the absence of many Irish contenders was noticeable, and I hope it did not coincide with the decision by Fairyhouse to re-organise its Irish National meeting, traditionally held over Easter, and bring forward a stand-alone day, loaded with Graded contests, the day after Aintree.
Anyone who’s ever entered the cauldron that is O’Neill’s in Liverpool city centre in the first week in April will realise how the Irish love our Grand National meeting. Almost as much as Cheltenham.
So it would be disconcerting if Fairyhouse’s new initiative stepped on its toes. The fact that Willie Mullins saddled three runners in each of three of Sunday’s Graded contests at the Irish track and two in the other -- when surely some could have been re-routed to Merseyside -- suggests it has the potential to.
5. The emergence of Gold Cup contenders
In the immediate, rather depressing, aftermath of a most bizarre Cheltenham Gold Cup last month, it was hard to come up with many credible challengers to improve on the race next year.
But Aintree changed all that.
SILVINIACO CONTI’s Betfred Bowl success confirmed he is arguably the best staying chaser on the planet at the moment, Ridden differently, he could yet make it third time lucky at Cheltenham in 2014.
Stablemate ROCKY CREEK will surely stake his claim too. For a horse so inexperienced and lumbered with such a big weight, Paul Nicholls’s eight-year old travelled and jumped so beautifully in the National that connections will be tempted to prepare him for the same race again. But given that he’s almost guaranteed to ally more improvement to his undoubted class, he has to go for the Gold Cup.
Nicky Henderson will almost certainly rely on 2012 winner BOB’S WORTH again. But in Topham Chase winner MA FILLEULE, he might boast a surprise package capable of mixing it with the best too. For a six-year-old mare seemingly too high in the weights, her performance was even more eye-popping than that of stablemate Triolo D’Alene the previous year. It’s not hard to envisage her tracking the same route as that one next season, starting with the Hennessy in November.
Of course, at Cheltenham, Ma Filleule was not far behind HOLYWELL, who had Gold Cup potential stamped all over his performance in landing Aintree’s Mildmay Novices’ Chase. He’s not the biggest, but he comes alive on better ground in the spring, and his improvement over fences has mirrored that he showed over hurdles. Trainer Jonjo O’Neill is very excited about him.
Also from the novice ranks, don’t be surprised if UXIZANDRE makes the necessary transition to Blue Riband level. After his victory in the Manifesto Chase at Aintree, jockey Tony McCoy was making noises about him dropping to the minimum trip. But he is already proven over 3m. He boasts power and pace, stamina and attitude.
6. Liverpool has taken the National to its hearts again
The way in which Aintree has engaged with the Merseyside community is an example to all tracks up and down the country.
Because that community now embraces the Grand National meeting with pride and passion.
The three days are very different. Thursday is for the purists, one of the most enjoyable and relaxing in the Jumps calendar. Friday is the legendary, boozy spectacular that is Ladies’ day. And Saturday needs no introduction as National Day, attracting visitors from all over the world.
But one common theme that runs through all three days now is the support of the Liverpool public and its businesses.
The partnership was evident throughout, topped by the masterstroke of a decision to stage a minute’s applause on National Day for the victims of the Hillsborough Disaster 25 years ago.
The confident way the course connects with the general public was reflected in its racecards which were among the best I have ever seen in more than 30 years of going racing.
From its branding and marketing to its facilities and services on course, Aintree is now a leader in its field. The course, and its showcase meeting, are superbly managed which, of course, reflects enormous credit on Lord Daresbury and his 25-year tenure as chairman, which drew to a close last Saturday.
Little wonder that Daresbury and his team had so little trouble attracting a new sponsor, Crabbie’s, to replace John Smith’s.
7. My own personal world exclusive
To finish, please forgive my self-indulgence, but I can report a WORLD exclusive from my own personal experiences in Liverpool last week.
One of the oldest wives’ tales in the book is that when a bird poops on you, it brings you good luck. (Yes, I would have preferred to use a better word than ‘poops’, but couldn’t find one that met with my editor’s approval).
Well, folks, I am here today to conclusively confirm to you that the adage is actually accurate and correct.
A bird -- and a Liver bird no less -- deposited its white droppings on me last Friday evening from a tall building on Bold Street as I was walking back to my city-centre hotel. And the very next day, I backed the winner of the National for the first time since Hedgehunter in 2005 and for the only the second time since Lord Gyllene in 1997.
Mind you, I reckon the feathered fiend cheated. Because I’d already had four winners that day, and four winners the previous day. Stewards’ Inquiry? Like a few jockeys I know, the pigeon was not hanging around to hear the verdict.