ONCE seen, never forgotten... This columnist witnessed the first televised Grand National in 1960 and it has had its hooks in me since, the best day of the sporting year, Christmas and birthdays all rolled into one.
It was a transfixing experience to watch it won in good old black and white by Merryman II, ridden by Gerry Scott, whose injured arm was in such a state of serious disrepair that he would not have been passed fit by the doctors nowadays.
Watching it unfold on tv was a never-to-be-forgotten experience as the doughty course owner Mirabel Topham finally – and reluctantly – allowed BBC cameras on to the course after years of steadfast resistance.
Televison was the making of the National.
Then, as now, the BBC use one of the most iconic shots in sports broadcasting, a camera on top of a car following the runners from the first fence down to Bechers along the adjacent former motor-racing circuit, upon which the British Grand Prix once took place.
The first tv National was a compelling voyage of discovery as the field crossed the historic fences – Bechers, The Canal Turn and Valentines – not once, but twice, kicking the spruce off the top of the fences as they sailed over.
All the while it was described by plummy-voiced commentators, who had a far harder job in those days – there were no colour monitors to check on the fallers.
And back then, even those brave horses who didn’t win the National had memorable, almost mythical names like Owen’s Sedge, Tea Fiend, Black Secret, Purple Silk, Gay Navaree, Hawa’s Song, O’Malley Point and Gentle Moya, not like many years later when horses were burdened with such nomenclatures as Miss Video Jukebox, Hellcatmudwrestler and Allied Carpets.
That said, even in those days, the publicity-conscious Fred Pontin was aware of the commercial possibilities, changing the name of Gay Navaree to Pontin-Go to promote his holiday camps.
When he went European, he ran a horse called Go Pontinental.
When Pontin did at last win the National in 1971, it was plain old Specify!
Just to think about the old Grand Nationals is to wallow in nostalgia, but you don’t have to conjure up memories in your imagination.
Thanks to an enterprising seller on eBay, you can get a complete record of televised Nationals for about a tenner – a bargain to end all bargains!
You could drown in such unashamed nostalgia, let alone wallow.
Every National winner has a story – and even the losers.
That is a point underlined in a new offering by Chris Pitt, Go Down To The Beaten (Racing Post Books, £20), which despite its title is one of the best racing books of any year (the title refers to a John Masefield poem).
Pitt examines the also-rans in the post-war history of Grand Nationals.
We all know all about Red Rum wearing down Crisp at the end of the 1973 Grand National – but what about the horse and jockey that finished last that day, Mill Door and pilot Peter Cullis?
He woke up in bed on the morning of the National blind in one eye!
Devon Loch rolled around as though he was blind-drunk as his feet collapsed from under him when on the verge of certain victory in 1956.
Did the Queen Mother’s horse jump a phantom fence or was he frightened by the noise of the crowd?
George Cramp – rider of Gentle Moya that fateful day – thought Devon Loch had suffered chronic cramp, a problem that overtook him when he was over-tired – he saw him suffer a similar seizure at Sandown Park and the horse never ran again.
Then there was the story of the 1946 National when Bill Balfe rode perhaps the worst jumper ever to compete in the Aintree classic, a beast called Elsich
He fell in 22 of his 50 races and either pulled up, refused or ran out in another nine.
And what happened in the National? He fell at the first fence, of course!
It’s not just the horses and jockeys that beguile when it comes to Aintree – it is the people and the places.
Progress has to be made at Aintree – and boy has it been made since the place was dying on its feet in the early 1970s – but it is a shame that the runners no longer go into that cluttered, sometimes chaotic postage-stamp-sized winner’s enclosure.
It is now a bar, which seems a shame somehow.
The winner was accompanied by an equally proud mounted police horse, with no end of scallies trying to get their mugs on the telly by attempting to grab hold of the lead-rein.
Of course, the National and Red Rum are forever inter-linked, and it is safe to say that his record of three wins and two seconds will never be surpassed.
Red Rum was just an annoying irritant – to some observers at least – when he overtook the gallant Crisp on the run-in, he was the villain of the piece in ‘73.
By the time, he had made it three wins in 1977, he was everyone’s hero.
Time almost stood still in 1967 when loose horse Popham Down almost mowed down the rest of the field when he ran across the 23rd fence – it halted every horse in the race bar from the plodder Foinavon, whose trainer didn’t even come to Aintree that day.
Thinking that his horse had negligible chance, John Kempton went to Worcester instead and missed witnessing at first hand the most amazing National ever.
Of course, there was the National that never was in 1993, when chaos reigned and the race was declared void.
A different kind of drama happened in 1997 when an IRA bomb threat meant the course had to be evacuated, and was re-run 48 hours later on a Monday afternoon when it was free to get in and the National was the only race on the card.
And so to Saturday’s race, which is preceded by two fixtures this afternoon and Friday, the latter now so popular that it is an unofficial Bank Holiday in Liverpool!
The National has changed in complexion over the years, and a lot of the no-hopers/dross has been gradually weeded out, so most runners are closely weighted.
So what’s going to win on Saturday? At times my record in the race is worse than Captain Becher, but Silver By Nature, trained in Scotland by Lucinda Russell, can be the first horse prepared north of the Border since Rubstic in 1979 to win.
Not only does he have sound credentials, but it is high time a grey won.
Not since 1961 – Nicolaus Silver – has a grey triumphed, kicking the previous year’s winner Merryman II at the start before galloping to victory.
Fifty years on, here’s hoping it’s a case of Hi Ho Silver!