A National institution that is neither grand nor great (UK)

The Grand National is not real racing, it’s only sold that way to get millions of irregular punters interested, argues Paul Haigh (The Guardian)

Every year we are invited to believe that the Grand National provides a wonderful shop window for racing, an advertisement for the sport that money on its own simply could not buy. Here, we are told, is the essence of the game, the distillation of courage, skill and endurance which annually explains to the uncommitted observer exactly what horseracing is about.

In fact, it does nothing of the sort. The National actually offers a contradiction of racing’s essence, which, for the punter anyway, is the business of working out through the application of logic which horse is likely to finish in front of which other horse.

The once-a-year punters approach the National with the belief that it’s just a kind of raffle – the name of the famous race’s first winner, Lottery, is often trotted out as a confirmatory joke – and every year the vast majority go away from the nine-minute experience with their prejudices about racing confirmed, with their belief that victory can be achieved just as easily by the use of a pin or by reference to their auntie who always picks the winner (“It’s uncanny. I don’t know how she does it”) as by the use of mathematics. What fools they must think us who waste our time on a regular basis trying in vain to predict the unpredictable.

In recent years, as Greg Wood pointed out here last week, the race has been modified to make it less unlike other races: to make it less of a lottery and more of a contest in which the best horse wins, or at least the horse with the best chance at the weights, because it is only a handicap after all.

Paradoxically, though, these modifications, undertaken primarily to satisfy those of its PC critics who see it as an unacceptable piece of anachronistic barbarism, only serve to point up its pointlessness. There are no other races run at 4½ miles over 30 obstacles. Therefore there can be no relevant form study – and if there is no form study how can the race possibly be an advertisement for a sport that depends on the conviction that form study is worthwhile?

The race’s huge, but steadily dwindling popularity (the days are long gone when it could attract a TV audience of around 20 million) was based on its very freakishness, and also on the danger involved in asking horses to negotiate fences of a type they never normally see, particularly the drop fences which were cruel practical jokes that resulted in the deaths of many animals. But now the drops have gone, and the freakishness diminished. So why do we still bother with it?

“Oh lighten up”, say the race’s defenders, many of them bookies who, we should not forget, have a vested interest in promoting the race’s image as a national institution, “it’s just a bit of fun”. Well, yes it is, although try explaining that to horses who have to be put down after injuring themselves. Explaining it to jockeys horribly injured is less difficult as they have to a man (and occasional woman) bought the macho package and see the risk of crippling as an inherent part of that fun.

It is fun, but it is not real racing. If you were advertising the sport of football, would you do it by staging a game with 40 players that went on for about four hours on a field 300 yards long, and in which tripping was permitted? No ad agency who pitched that would get another second’s time. Let’s not pretend the National is racing’s shop window when it’s the opposite. If it’s anything, it’s an annual warning to the poor fools who live their dreary lives without racing’s consolations that they should continue in their deprived condition.
Note from Vivian: When I was a racing photographer in England, I covered the Grand National 6 times. Photographers draw for position, and one year I “won” the most coveted of all, The Chair.

If you have never seen this spectacle and wonder what it is all about, here is the 2008 Grand National uploaded on YouTube.

I never saw one horse put down at the Grand National, although I knew a few who were injured and had to retire from racing. However, I did witness at least 12 horses killed at Cheltenham, maybe more. Jockeys fare much worse. Many have had their health and careers ruined from falls at these meetings.

There are usually animal rights protesters every year at the entrance, and stationed in smallish groups around the course. There is such bedlam on the day of the Grand National, they are drowned out but sometimes get a small mention in next day’s news.

2008 Grand National

Congratulations to winning trainer David Pipe, following in your dad, Martin’s, footsteps. I was there when Richard won on Minnehoma in 1994. You were but a lad!

1994 Grand National

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