The jumps season may have all but run its course, however we can be sure that the torrent of criticism that spewed out after this year’s Grand National will continue to flow for some time yet.
As the home of the world’s most famous horserace, the media spotlight is always ready to shine brightly on Aintree in April. The potential for tragedy that inevitably exists gives sensationalists the opportunity to deliver a withering assessment of the National, which is exactly what happened following the heartbreaking deaths of Synchronised and According To Pete.
That this year’s fatalities included a Cheltenham Gold Cup winner meant the level of vitriol directed at Liverpool’s showpiece was higher than usual and, disappointingly, became the focus of many media reports. This was a real pity, as the thrilling battle between Neptune Collonges and Sunnyhillboy, resulting in the closest finish in the race’s history, deserved far better coverage.
So what now for the National, a sporting event that divides opinion like no other?
Our new columnist, Richard Edmondson, is steadfast in his own beliefs and nails his colours to the mast in defence of the event. “You either consider it a glorious expression of the sporting spirit, the ultimate commentary on the courage of man and beast in cohesion. Or you think it is an abattoir,” he says. “This is the great problem. The twain shall never meet.
“If the National became a great, long stampede without peril and one where we could promise almost all would survive, we would have to call it something else. The Cesarewitch is my call, but I’m open to suggestions.”
The BHA has an unenviable role in having to handle this situation. Derided by those who love the National and lament previous changes to the race, and also by those who want it banned, appeasement will be the policy, yet it is almost impossible to achieve.
With this year’s National producing so much negative publicity for racing, it was heartening to hear that Frankel, the colt who has generated so many positive headlines for the sport, will race on as a four-year-old this year after recovering from a minor tendon injury.
Reports on Twitter that Khalid Abdullah’s superstar had been retired proved, thankfully, wide of the mark and the unbeaten son of Galileo is being primed for a return to the racecourse.
Should Frankel make the field for the Lockinge Stakes at Newbury on May 19, his initial target before injury intervened, he may just find a certain Michael Hills trying to get him beat.
Now 49 and the senior inhabitant of the weighing room, with a CV that features almost 150 Pattern race wins including the Derby on Shaamit, Hills starts this Flat season without one old foe in opposition, his twin brother Richard having retired after the Dubai World Cup in March. The two had their first rides on the same day in 1979.
“Richard went to Windsor and I went to Nottingham,” Hills tells Julian Muscat. “Charlie Nelson put us up because dad wouldn’t give either of us a ride. He said we were too light.
“I asked Richard how it went for him and he said he’d been smacked in the face by a big clump of turf. He didn’t really enjoy it, whereas I just pulled mine out and we sailed past Bryn Crossley [and won]. It was magic.”
With Barry Hills having stepped down from the training ranks last year, it is up to son Charlie to continue the family tradition at Faringdon Place Stables, and Hills has some words of advice for his younger brother as he embarks on his first full season with a licence.
“Charlie has lots of his own ideas but he has to remember that he has taken over a fantastic set-up, with great staff,” he says. “He will gradually put his own print on it as he goes, but he won’t disturb a winning formula.”