During family trips to Southport from our Liverpool home we would often stop at the beach at Birkdale. I would watch local trainer Ginger McCain’s horses galloping on the wet sand or splashing in the surf.
Of course, there was no commentator to tell me which of the small posse each wearing a hallmark orange, red and black blanket was Rummy. My mum always said ‘the one in front’ was Red Rum – well she would, wouldn’t she?
The horses once filed past me after a morning workout, heading back to their stables. I gazed in silent awe as the stable lad, possibly Billy Ellison, indicated which horse was our local hero. Red Rum was a bigger name to me than Kevin Keegan or Mohammed Ali.
Immediately after his 1974 Grand National victory I made a ‘well done’ card. My older sisters ribbed me for drawing ridiculously long, spindly legs beneath a barrel-shaped body. I was only five, though nearly six. Mum insisted the card should be hand delivered the next day. She bundled us into the car and drove us to Birkdale where Mr McCain had his stables tucked away down a cobbled alley off the main road.
Sunshine bathed the courtyard as I pinned my homemade card on Red Rum’s stable door. The great horse peered over. I remember being encouraged to hand him Polo mints by Mr McCain but I was too wary. Some press photographers found the combination of my distinctive artwork, crocheted woolly waistcoat (thanks mum) and the world’s greatest racehorse irresistible and photos of me and Rummy subsequently appeared in several local papers and also the Daily Express.
My love affair with the Grand National had begun, but within a few years tragedy threatened to end it.
Gold Cup winner Alverton was favourite to win the National in 1979. Approaching Becher’s Brook for the second time he was cruising. A crashing fall killed him and in that instant I saw for the first time the thankfully rare, inevitable, dark side of the Grand National.
The shock of Alverton’s death was later compounded by newspaper photos showing the horse on its side, lifeless, next to the towering fence with jockey Jonjo O’Neill standing over him clearly distressed. It was a big test for this ten-year-old boy, but my love for the Grand National prevailed.
On Saturday I watched the 2011 Grand National on TV with my ten-year-old son, Jack, along with around a dozen grown-ups and as many children. Jack has also enjoyed a childhood bejeweled with some precious Aintree memories – such as watching Hedgehunter on his morning gallop before his 2005 win.
As the second circuit of this year’s race was underway and the racetrack camera panned across the sight of fallen horse Ornais beneath his tarpaulin shroud Jack scurried to find his mum in another room to tell her a horse was dead and that it had been covered by a ‘blanket.’
Clearly shocked by the tragic realisation he returned moments later to see Becher’s Brook also being bypassed as Dooneys Gate lay dead or dying. The BBC’s mistake to cut to an aerial view is baffling and perhaps due as much to poor planning as poor judgement.
In fairness to Jack he has coped OK since Saturday. Plenty of questions but no tears, and he was angry at suggestions that the Grand National should be banned.
Lessons will be learned by the racing fraternity, just as in 1979, and further safety improvements to the Grand National will be considered. Watering to compensate for faster-than-ever horses carrying greater-than-ever weights over easier-than-ever fences is one option. Ensuring safer ‘good to soft’ going seems sensible, although I’m not an expert.
For me, a key issue for race organisers, sponsors and the media is the emotional duty of care they have to families, especially children spellbound by the Grand National.
Allowances must be made for different audiences and while high impact imagery may (or may not) make ‘good telly’ for a Cheltenham Festival watcher it arguably harms the Grand National’s reputation in the eyes of the estimated 600 million TV viewers worldwide, including around 10 million people in the UK.
Greater emphasis must be placed on getting it right first time. It is not a cover-up, as some may say, it is acting swiftly and sensitively when tragedy strikes. Official broadcasters must rehearse scenarios such as fences 20 and 22 on Saturday. Planning is key to success.
From 50 camera shots around the course surely there must always be one or two close-ups or cut-aways available at any time to avoid distressing views of injured horses or jockeys…especially if the director is given a full circuit’s notice?
To continue to flourish, the Grand National needs to nurture its family audience – the first step is to protect younger fans from unnecessary upset.
Sadly, tragedies will happen and they should continue to be reported, but in a measured style and context.