Air might be in short supply in the Merseyside region as racing awaits perhaps its biggest day of the calendar. These have not been happy times recently for the Grand National, with high-profile deaths over the last two years marring the National Hunt showcase. The many will be holding deep breaths for this year’s race.
In 2011, both Ornais and Dooney’s Gate fell fatally and caused fences to be dolled off. Twelve months ago the narrative should have been about Neptune Collonges’s narrowest of wins, but, instead, we remember the demise of According To Pete and the Gold Cup winner, Synchronised.
So what to do? The go-to man seems to be Nigel Payne, who was Aintree’s press officer for 31 years until 2006. In great agent fashion, Nigel may have been pruning roses in his Cornwall garden when a helicopter landed and he was asked to return for one, final challenge.
Nigel may have been pruning roses in his garden when a helicopter landed to take him back
Since January, it has been Nige’s big ask to oversee the changes at Liverpool and, crucially, to communicate the message that the National is not necessarily a horse-killing machine.
There is no better man for the job. Nigel may no longer be puffing on a pipe stuffed with St Bruno, but he remains the most avuncular of figures, his walrus moustache appearing to have sieved quite a few clams and mussels down the years.
He knows what it is to deal with Aintree drama. In 1993 – the year of the false start – he earned great kudos for the time he spent on the BBC defending the course’s decisions and response. Four years later came the bomb warning and the abandoned National.
The 1997 National also remains uppermost in my mind as we were staying with friends in Crosby. We, my family at the time, comprised two young children, who had spent the run-up to the great race filling our hosts’ house with screams and vomit.
When we left that Saturday morning, they waved us off with watery smiles and unconvincing suggestions that we should return as quickly as possible. Around eight hours later we took them up on their generous offer and hung around until Lord Gyllene’s victory on the Monday.
Horses perished that day too and every year Aintree tries to further institute safety measures. This spring the fences will be structurally more forgiving and the start will be 90 yards further down the course, away from the baying and stimulating audience. It will help survival but it will not guarantee it. “It’s like motor-racing,” Nigel says. “You can put in all the life-saving features and piles of tyres you like, but if someone flips there is not much you can do about it.”
The reality is it is the peril which makes the Grand National the contest it is. Take away the whole menace and you are left with a sports day egg-and-spoon race.
National winners go down as doughty heroes, tough animals that emerge from the battlefield smoke to claim their prize. Nigel Payne knows this better than most as he is a National winner himself. One of a six-man syndicate who contributed £5,800 each to buy a horse called Earth Summit, he was there weeping as the old nag swept by Suny Bay in the 1998 running of the race.
In his book Gold Digger, Nigel was kind enough to quote words I had written about his horse: “He is perhaps the slowest good horse there has ever been. If they had made the Titanic out of the same material as Earth Summit’s body there would have been a lot of little ice cubes floating in the North Atlantic.”
Let us hope all the Liverpool runners this year demonstrate Earth Summit’s toughness. Let us hope we are, for a change, talking about the winner and not the losers of the Grand National.