Up close and personal with British horse racing ahead of Saturday's Grand National at Aintree

Up close and personal with British horse racing ahead of Saturday’s Grand National at Aintree

There is an odd combination of British sporting institutions taking centre stage this weekend as horse racing and river rowing come to the fore for the one and only time this year. On Sunday afternoon the elitist showcase known as The Boat Race takes place against the currant of the River Thames, with a back drop of thousands crowded on the riverbanks in west London. But I’m not going to dwell on that, because on Saturday, 230 miles north in Liverpool, the biggest steeplechase in the world will captivate a country like no other.

I’m talking about Britain’s vague equivalent to the Kentucky Derby, the Grand National. Four and a half miles, 30 fences, 40 horses, and a prize pot of £1,000,000. The biggest, longest, richest, and most famous jumps race of them all. Saturday will mark the 167th running of the contest where over £100 million is wagered, a large amount coming from those who would otherwise never considering gambling on a horse race.

I am one of those who would always considering gambling on racing, although it took me some time to get to grips with the sport. In fact I completely ignored racing until 2009, but after spending an afternoon at a meeting in London I was an instant convert. Since that sunny July day nearly five years ago I’ve been to 11 courses in Britain and two in the US, I’ve twice witnessed the best horse to ever compete destroy his opposition, and in 2012 I successfully picked out the winner of the Grand National for the first time. I’d like to take this opportunity to once again thank Neptune Collanges for the lovely weekend in New York City, whilst reminding my picks for this year (Mountainous & Quito De La Roque) of their obligations come Saturday at 4.15 (11.15 Eastern).

By that point 18 races will already have come and gone as The National takes place towards the end of a three-day festival at Aintree. Hot on the heels of the biggest race festival in Britain, March’s Cheltenham Festival, the National Festival’s attendance figure usually tops 150,000 punters, with over nine million watching on UK TV during Saturday’s racing alone. The worldwide viewing figures sit between 500-600 million.

Unfortunately for racing, once the final horse crosses the line and Channel 4 closes down the coverage for another weekend, racing drifts back into the niche sport category, although it’s nowhere near as depressing as US racing’s drift into obscurity following the Triple Crown. The jumping season finally gives way to the flat campaign, which includes the original Derby at Epsom, Royal Ascot, and Glorious Goodwood to name but a few. British racing is so much more than one Saturday in April, but as far as spectacles go, the National is hard to beat.