It’s Grand National day. I have missed my traditional build-up, because I rode my own little National winner (that is, the National of my heart) this morning. I am always bragging about how light she is, and how I can ride her with one finger. But today, for some reason, she was ornery, and so I had to work my arse off. You can’t end on a bad note, and so back to the beginning we went, over and over, until I had her where I wanted her. I am physically shattered. I have not read my Racing Post, I have missed the Morning Line, it’s all gone to pot.
I love the National and I hate the National. Part of me thinks it is a freak show. It is absurd to ask forty horses to gallop almost four and a half miles over thirty fences. Part of me thinks it is the greatest spectacle on earth. It calls on all the qualities I admire: courage, heart, guts, cleverness, willingness, and that little sprinkling of stardust which goes beyond words. By the time they line up, the excitement will have won, and I shall be rapt.
For my gambling self, the race is impossible. Over the last three days, I’ve made a perfectly sensible case for almost every horse in the race. Usually, you can put a line through about half the field. Not this year. Almost everything comes into it with a squeak.
There is also a lot of love, as many of my best beloveds line up. The heart and head go into serious opposition. If the magnificent, idiosyncratic Tidal Bay could win, I would die from joy. But he is thirteen and he’s got top weight, and, in my eyes, he’s not an obvious National horse.
I have loved Hunt Ball for years, and it’s been a joy to see him back in England with Nicky Henderson, fit as a butcher’s dog, and running well in good races. He’s a big strong horse, and he jumps beautifully, and he’s the type who could get into a rhythm and get the trip. But he’s not guaranteed to stay, and I think the weight will anchor him anyway.
Long Run is another horse who has a big place in my heart. I’ve especially loved him since his star has declined, and I’d adore to see him shine again. He’s another who is carrying a big weight, and he goes into the unknown as far as distance is concerned. I have a little feeling he might rather love these fences, although his jumping has been reckless in the past. He’s got the advantage of a trainer in red-hot form, and a jockey, in Sam Waley-Cohen, who rides these fences as well as anyone. The National can bring out the best in certain horses; they really do love it. What is often overlooked is that it also brings out the best in certain jocks, and Waley-Cohen is one of those.
Balthazar King is a top contender for my favourite horse in training. He is so honest and brave; he tries his heart out, and he loves to jump. I think he has the talent to win this, but he had a hard enough race in his epic battle at Cheltenham, and I suspect that may take its toll. If he could win today, I would cry tears of joy, but I’m not sure he will glitter so brightly away from his adored Prestbury Park.
As for Teaforthree, I fell helplessly in love with him when he hunted round the festival like a stag to win under JT McNamara, who will be watching today from his hospital bed. He ran a blinder last year, and took to the fences as if he were born to them. I backed him a hundred years ago, ante-post, at 25-1, and I think he will be up there at the finish. My nagging doubts are whether the Gold Cup will have sharpened him up, or whether it will have taken a bit out of him, and also whether he quite gets every inch of this marathon trip. He did fade last year, but he’s got a lighter weight, and he’s a year older and a year stronger. His trainer, Rebecca Curtis, is one of the most intelligent and instinctive in the business, and I have huge faith in her, and his jockey knows him well and loves him, and he is a worthy favourite. I really would love him to win it. He deserves it, none more. But the little doubt wags its finger in the corner of my mind.
As for my lively outsider, because you must always have one, I’ve chosen another heart horse, Mountainous. He’s as genuine and honest as the day is long, he jumps and gallops and stays all week, and he won me a pot of money in the Welsh National. My fear is that in a very talented field, he might just lack that tiny bit of class, and also that he is at his very best on soft ground. They might go a bit quick for him. But at 40-1, I think the bold fella will give me a lovely spin.
In the end, though, this is all about the love, not the money. I shall watch them, as I always do, in trepidation, in awe, in crazy admiration. The thoroughbred is one of the miracles of the equine world, unsurpassed in beauty, courage, speed and strength. The men and women who ride them are a wild combination of flintiness and lightness, power and sensitivity, instinct and tactical calculation. In some ways, today, in this race, Sam Waley-Cohen is not the only amateur. Of course the professionals do it for money; it is their job. But on Grand National day, they are really doing it for love. Their hearts will be beating as fast as mine.
Most of all, I hope all these mighty competitors, these great athletes, equine and human, come home safe. They will be carrying so many hopes and dreams in their hooves and hands. I hope it will be a spectacle to savour, a day to remember, for all the right reasons.
Oh, and should you be interested, here are my three bets. They come hedged with caveats, because it is the National. Anything could happen.
Teaforthree to win; Long Run to win; Mountainous each way.