Nicholas Godfrey: Why can’t the Grand National be run in second half of the year?

Horse Racing Tiger Roll Grand National
Tiger Roll (Davy Russell) wins the Randox Health Grand National at Aintree in April 2019.
Photo: Aintree Racecourse
Horse Racing Planet Nicholas Godfrey

Owing to coronavirus, next month’s Aintree spectacular has been cancelled. Nicholas Godfrey asks why it cannot be run later this year – like the Kentucky Derby, which has been postponed until September

What a difference a few days can make. Last Friday it was perfectly okay for 68,859 people to attend the final day of the Cheltenham Festival. Four days later, via a message that the sport might soon be going behind closed doors in line with other European nations, all racing in Britain has been cancelled until the end of May. 

From one extreme to the other, it might reasonably be suggested. Then again, the British racing authorities were simply taking their cues from Government, who seemed in the space of a few hours veered from a ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ stiff-upper-lip Britishness to a Dad’s Army-style ‘Don’t Panic!’

Forecasts of 250,000 deaths if the country had not changed course are chilling indeed, but even if certain high-level decisions appear in retrospect to have verged on the irresponsible, this is hardly the time for unhelpful recriminations. In Britain, we’re going to be lucky to get away with 20,000 extra deaths, according to latest scientific advice, which keeps changing seemingly on a minute-by-minute basis. 

They don’t know what’s going to happen either, though it is to be hoped they have a more informed idea than the rest of us. What is more, perhaps anybody reproaching themselves for enjoying themselves in the Cotswolds while Rome was burning should consider that hindsight is a wonderful thing; the science that’s never wrong.

Anyway this isn’t really the place for debating the wider issues, though such matters, literally of life and death, are of rather greater significance than anything our relatively piddling pond of horse racing has to worry about right now.

Here’s a pebble to skim across the piddling pond of horse racing

Be that as it may, here’s a little pebble to skim across the waters of that same piddling pond. The Kentucky Derby represents the only time horse racing truly penetrates the wider public consciousness in the United States. That’s probably why the $3 million contest is also known as ‘America’s race’. Well over 150,000 people will be at Churchill Downs, while only during the Super Bowl are TV adverts said to cost more.

Even if it is very much an American institution, there can be few more iconic sights in the entire racing world than the famous twin spires, while the event’s many and varied traditions have long been part of the folklore of the sport, among them the ubiquitous mint julep, the sickly bourbon-based concoction that is the Derby’s signature tipple, as much a custom as My Old Kentucky Home, the antebellum slaves’ song that fulfils the role of Derby hymn.

Louisville, the city in which Churchill Downs is located, is synonymous with its showpiece occasion in a way that exceeds even Melbourne’s focus on its race that stops a nation. The Derby is preceded annually by a festival that dominates the city for the two weeks prior to the race starting with ‘Thunder Over Louisville’, an annual airshow and fireworks display that signals the beginning of celebrations in earnest.

The expansive backstretch barn complex at Churchill Downs is in danger of bursting at the seams during Derby week when excitement both on and off the track grows tangibly the nearer the race comes.

After the Great Steamboat Race down the Ohio River on the Wednesday featuring a pair of lumbering paddle steamers, the city is overflowing with revellers from Thursday to Sunday, with the central Fourth Street Live! entertainment district the obvious focus for a drunken jamboree. Hotel prices are hiked up out of all recognition.

The racetrack itself is completely rammed on both Oaks Friday and Derby Saturday. The record crowd for the Derby itself came in 2015 when American Pharoah claimed the first leg of his Triple Crown in front of 179,513 people.

This is by any standards a big deal, which is why the decision to postpone this showpiece event until September 5 is such a massive news item. This will be the 146th Kentucky Derby – and it is the first time it won’t be held on the first Saturday in May since 1945, when the US Government issued a ban on racing owing to World War II.

The National is the world’s biggest steeplechase – perhaps its biggest race

Then we come to Aintree. The Grand National is the world’s biggest steeplechase – perhaps its biggest race altogether – and Britain’s most popular race.

Though it is hard to place absolute confidence in the figures, an estimated 500 to 600 million people are said to watch the National in 140 different countries. At home nearly half the UK adult population bets on the £1m contest; the overall betting turnover figure for Grand National day might be as much as £300m.

And the race has just been cancelled. Not postponed; completely cancelled. Though some decisive action (from anybody) was welcome, the news was seemingly out of kilter with the rest of the sport, which was continuing behind closed doors at that stage. Albeit not for long.

Clearly any Grand National requires rather more ambulance cover than a wet Wednesday at Lingfield, so as soon as government advice changed, it was clear the race could not take place in its scheduled slot, while a relatively short postponement was out of the question as the ground got faster and spring became summer.

Message received and understood. Why, though, can the Grand National not be run months later, preferably at either of Aintree’s November or December meetings? While the concept of a ‘November National’ has alliterative attractions, there are usually no scheduled races over the big fences on that card, whereas the Becher Chase is due to be staged on December 5.

At least it would mean 2020 still had a Grand National

Why not scrap that race and run a Grand National instead? Okay, it would be seven months late and run in the first half of a different season but at least it would mean that 2020 still had a Grand National.

Entries could be reopened, or it might be an interesting idea to employ the current handicap marks. If the sponsors don’t fancy the idea, then run it for less; it would still be the Grand National. That probably would not be a problem, as Randox Health also sponsor the Becher Chase. Anyway, the niceties would not need to be sorted out straight away; just a statement of intent would do nicely.

Run the Grand National in November or December, and even if it isn’t quite the same, you’ll still get a big proportion of that multi-million-pound betting turnover and subsequent Levy income. Everyone still gets their annual crack at the big fences; half the population is still likely to have a bet and everyone is looking at horse racing again.

While I have no wish to underestimate the logistical efforts required to stage such an enormous event, they surely can’t be any greater than those involved in the Kentucky Derby.

If the Louisville authorities are prepared to act in the best interests of their city’s showpiece event, surely it isn’t beyond the wit of man to do the same in Liverpool? The Grand National’s precise date in the calendar is hardly as sacrosanct as the first Saturday in May.

Crikey, they weren’t even due to be racing at Churchill Downs on September 5; while anytime after the summer would be fine, at least Aintree has meetings scheduled at the start of November and December.

At the end of Prohibition, America needed a drink. At the end of the coronavirus, British racing may well need a Grand National.

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