Tomorrow the eyes of the sporting world turn towards an ordinarily sleepy suburb of Liverpool for the world’s most famous race – The John Smith’s Grand National. Thirty famous fences. Forty horses and jockeys. A crowd of over 70,000. Well over £500,000 to the winner. Around £150m wagered in Great Britain alone. An estimated global audience in 2012 of 600m.The figures, as always, are jaw dropping.
As dictated by tradition, there race is littered with possible fairy-tale winners, and probably the biggest story of all would be victory for Seabass, trained by Ted Walsh, ridden by his daughter Katie, who is bidding to become the first woman to win the Grand National. Third in last year’s race, it would be no surprise to see the nation get behind Seabass and send him off favourite ahead of On His Own – ridden by none other than Katie’s brother, Ruby.
So much rests on the Grand National of 2013. Channel 4 is broadcasting the race for the first time, having bought the exclusive rights to televise British horse racing from the start of the year. They have thrown everything in their arsenal at this weekend; Alan Carr hosts a Grand National preview evening with the big guns of C4 all set to make an appearance, a horse racing themed ‘Come Dine With Me’, controversial advertising campaigns showing racing taking place through the streets of Liverpool. They have also invested significantly in new technology and yesterday launched a new ‘Horsetracker’ app, which allows viewers to track the progress of their chosen horses on their smart phones.
The executives know that this is the one moment when not just the eyes of the sporting nation, but the eyes of the world, will be on their broadcast. It’s possible that this event could generate C4’s largest audience since the 11.4m peak of the Paralympic Opening Ceremony last year – this is when initial judgement will be passed as to whether the millions paid for horse racing’s rights were worth it.
As always, the spectre of animal welfare hangs over Aintree for these three days. Significant changes to the course, costing millions, have been made in recent years, including a complete rebuild of the cores of all the fences. Racing’s leaders will be praying for a change of luck – in the years from 2000 to 2010, the race had the best safety record it has ever boasted, but two high profile equine casualties last year have once again placed welfare at the very centre of any discussion about the race. There will be plenty of vitriol from organisations such as Animal Aid, but welfare groups which advise racing have welcomed this year’s modifications to the fences in particular, whilst stressing the success or failure of any changes to the Grand National can only be judged over time.
The RSPCA’s David Muir said: “In all honesty they have done more than I thought they would. Fundamentally the changes that have been made are major already. They’ve taken the cores of the fences out, there is a cooling down area now, there’s a water system and there’s a reduction in the number of drop fences.”
There will be plenty of hard luck stories come Saturday, but the Grand National’s position as the world’s most famous race is unlikely to be at stake for some years to come yet.