The bitter easterly winds of early spring were not enough to dampen the spirits of racing people when first Cheltenham and then Aintree put on extraordinary racing shows in front of sell-out crowds and large television audiences.
Both meetings were, of course, blessed by the appearance of the incomparable Sprinter Sacre who is now looking so imperious that even racing’s old timers are allowing the comparison with Arkle. And, following last year’s exploits of Frankel, we now find ourselves in an era where two super-horses have linked the sometimes insular world of horseracing with an adoring general public. The worth of such equine stars in marketing and promotional terms is incalculable.
The Jockey Club, the BHA and Channel 4 all deserve credit for their efforts
A similar comment might also apply to the outcome of a Grand National where all horses and riders returned from the race unscathed and in doing so provided complete justification for all the work and thought that was given to changing the National fences and moving the great race’s starting position. The cheer that rang out from the Aintree crowd at hearing that the whole field had jumped Becher’s on the first circuit was not only a resounding response to animal rights campaigners but also, conversely, to those who thought that nothing needed to be changed.
The success of the Cheltenham and Aintree meetings is also a testament to the outstanding management skills of the Jockey Club who, as owner of both racecourses, have carefully blended commercial considerations with those affecting the racing. They have balanced the criticism of the Grand National with a profound understanding of the huge importance of the event and, over time, moved to a solution that will not always produce a perfect result but which has sent the right message to the outside world.
It is also appropriate – while in the mood for handing out bouquets rather than brickbats – to say a few words in praise of the BHA whose Chief Executive and staff were also instrumental in the National course changes and who must have been mightily relieved to see how well the event turned out.
It is not entirely accidental that the work of the BHA’s Chief Executive, Paul Bittar, is coinciding with what is developing into a very positive era for British horseracing. It must be hoped that his policy of seeking rapprochement with the betting industry and the part he is playing in facilitating prize-money agreements between horsemen and racecourses will help to create an ideal launching pad for the BHA Chairman-designate, Steve Harman, from whom we expect much.
The other group of people who were very much up against it on Grand National day were those responsible for the first-ever Channel 4 coverage of the race. It was a test they passed admirably. Of course, we were hardly surprised to see Clare Balding put in her usual superb and insightful performance but the whole team worked in unison as part of an impressive production of which Channel’s 4 Sports Editor, Jamie Aitchison, should be immensely proud.
Not only that, but Channel 4 threw its heart and soul into the event so that a documentary and chat show were wrapped around the race in a way where racing was linked with well-known celebrities and massive TV audiences. We know that such programmes do not always appeal to the purist but racing must use every opportunity to be inclusive, embracing both the casual fan and the uninitiated.
So the last word on these events must go in celebration of Auroras Encore. Not only did his surprise victory perpetuate the sort of human interest story that is so embedded in Grand National folklore, it also earned a lot of money for British horseracing. When a horse wins our biggest betting race of the year at 66/1, you suddenly start thinking where we would be if bookmakers’ offshore business was back in the UK where it belongs.