The Randox Health Grand National is still the greatest National Hunt race of them all.
Other meetings, as a whole, might garner more attention, and purists — myself included — will argue the Gold Cup is the pinnacle of our sport, but maybe that’s because we know the best horse can win the Gold Cup and everyone wants to be associated with the best.
So, why is the Grand National the greatest? Because it is only ever a dream or a hope. There are no parameters or guidelines to follow, no proven path through a season for a horse to take en route to glory, or no tactical approach a jockey can learn to maximise their chance of success.
Each of the 40 horses set to face the starter at 5.15pm on Saturday will have been aimed at this race since August. Some are probably only getting the chance to line up after 23 months’ planning, but Saturday has been the day chosen for all of these.
Some connections will have been hoping merely to be in the line-up, fulfilling a lifelong ambition to just have a runner in the race, and others will be harvesting the hopes of glory or at least a good showing because there is not a licence holder in this sport who expects anything when it comes to the Grand National.
I know the race has changed since I won it in on Papillon in 2000, but it had changed five times by then too, and it keeps evolving with the society in which it is being run in. Whilst that makes it less of a lottery, it has not made it a straightforward chase.
Any race with a field the size of the one that will approach the tape 50 yards in front of the Melling Road is going to have drama and hard-luck stories. There is no way of not needing luck in this scenario and you won’t just require a little along the way, you’ll need luck with cherries and cream on top.
All 40 runners will thunder across the Melling Road, scattered across the vast width of Aintree’s Augusta-like turf in a bid to get a view of the first fence with no horse directly in front of them. But remember, these are stayers, not speedsters, so some riders will have to ease off the gas earlier than others to get their mount balanced for take-off.
More horses fall on the outside of the first fence than on the inside, so going wide for space is not a guaranteed route to survival. But position is vital as the fences will no longer take out half the field, so if you are at the back now, the likelihood is you will have to pass 34 or 35 horses to win.
Fence three is the first ditch and how you jump fence four tells you whether your steed is liking this experience or not. The pace won’t steady until Becher’s appears, and that’s only because when you land over the now fake brook, it turns left and gets tight on the approach to Foinavon.
Turning slightly again once you land over the smallest fence on the course, there will be an immediate jostle for position heading to the Canal Turn. Those inside will want to be just in front of the one beside them so that they are in control of their turn rather than being turned too soon or turned over by the one ahead on their right. This is by far the most congested part of the race.
The speed will ramp up again heading for Valentine’s Brook as those who feel they need to make a bit of ground push forward and others try to hold the position they have.
The status quo will resume when you join the racecourse proper as a race that used to settle at the third fence finally settles now.
However, once you pass back over the Melling Road, five furlongs later, it’s race on again in much the same manner as lap one only this time tiring horses will be losing touch with the never-relenting pace.
Valentine’s will most likely claim something that is catching the eye, but 40 will have wilted to five possible winners by the time they cross the Melling Road for the final time and make their way to the last two fences before starting off up that famous and seemingly never-ending run to the line.
Will the handicap certainly Cloth Cap give Jonjo O’Neill his second National winner, and Tom Scudamore his first, 62 years after his granddad steered Oxo to victory? Or will Burrows Saint emulate Bobbyjo and Numbersixvalverde by completing the Irish and English National double under the first amateur to win the race since Marcus Armytage on Mr Frisk in 1990? It would be fitting for the sport’s winning-most amateur, Patrick Mullins, having had to sit out Cheltenham under Covid requirements, but it would also be a sickener for the injured Paul Townend.
Henry and Rachael, who don’t even need their second names anymore, dominated in Cheltenham, and Minella Times could continue their great run, in Liverpool.
My sister, Katie, was third on Seabass in 2012 or 2013 — I got knocked out that day, so I can’t remember.
But for those for whom the thought of a girl even riding in the Grand National was once inconceivable, it is now only a matter of time before a female rider wins it — and it could even be now.
Bryony Frost, on Yala Enki, and Tabitha Worsley, on Sub Lieutenant, will complete the female riding brigade, but Jessica Harrington, Georgie Howell, and Denise Foster have good bullets to fire from the training ranks.
Magic Of Light, Farclas, and The Storyteller will all have their followers.
Willie Mullins has each-way claims with Class Conti and Cabaret Queen, but Acapella Bourgeois could be the biggest benefactor of an empty Merseyside venue because, even at 11 years of age, this fellow is quite highly strung.
His rider, Danny Mullins, won’t be lacking in confidence following a fine run of success in recent times.
To go with Minella Times, JP McManus and family have the depth in their team which Jurgen Klopp would like to have in his Liverpool squad.
They have the likes of Any Second Now — I’ll be back to him — Kimberlite Candy, Canelo, Anibale Fly, OK Corral, and The Long Mile.
Pick the one you fancy, but the one I will be following will be Any Second Now.
It is 21 years since Papillon kickstarted a period of my career from which I never looked back, but the whole occasion was about more than just career highlights.
To win something so big with your dad had an emotional sense of pride and reward like nothing else. I want Any Second Now to win, I want to see my dad enjoy that all over again and, whilst I won’t be looking out through Any Second Now’s ears, or doing anything to help make it happen, I will be leading the cheerleaders.