The British sporting calendar is sprinkled with iconic events – Wimbledon, FA Cup Final, The University Boat Race, British Golf Open, Henley Regatta.
Events with a status that somehow transcend the sport upon which they are based.
Another such event takes place tomorrow – The Grand National.
There would be many British people for whom horse racing carries no interest whatsoever, apart from on this one day each year when their thoughts drift towards Aintree and the possibility of having a little flutter.
In many ways, the status of the Grand National mirrors that of the Melbourne Cup in Australia, where on the first Tuesday each November, Australians celebrate ‘the race that stops a nation’.
Having experienced many Melbourne Cups during my time down under, I can vouch for the unique role it plays in the Australian psyche.
Every Melbourne Cup day, crowds of ingénues enter the rather seedy environs of their nearby betting shop and try to work out how to place a box trifecta, a quinella or some other equally unfathomable bet.
The Aussies also like to treat it as an excuse to dress up and have a bit of a lunch (if indeed an excuse was needed).
Each year I attended a lunch and each year I observed other smartly dressed men and women of Sydney becoming progressively more ‘bedraggled’ as the afternoon and evening wore on, generally losing not only their wager, but also any sense of decorum.
(Unlike the midweek nature of the Melbourne Cup, The Grand National is a weekend affair, but I dare say a fair amount of imbibing goes on there too.)
The race itself is a handicap steeplechase run over a distance of more than 4 miles and it also carries the largest purse of any race in Europe, around £1 million this year. It takes place at Aintree racecourse in Liverpool and was first run in 1839, so is steeped in history.
The course itself has an almost mythical quality with several fences even having individual names, each acquiring its own aura over time – Beechers Brook, Canal Turn, The Chair.
These fences look massive too, so it is hardly a great surprise each year when so many horses come to grief as they valiantly try to haul their weary bodies over them.
Generally a large starting field has become decimated by the time the race nears its end and just a few warrior-like horses stagger their way towards the finishing post, roared on by an ale-fuelled crowd.
The gruelling nature of the race maybe helps explain why horses that win the Grand National often become household names.
To get to the winning post first, they have to display guts, stamina and physical strength – the same qualities that for some reason we also seem to cherish in our national footballers, but that’s another story.
Casting my eyes over a list of winners from years gone by, I was struck by how many names still seemed familiar. Corbiere, Aldaniti, Crisp, Ben Nevis, L’Escargot and of course, the legendary Red Rum, the only horse to have won the Grand National three times.
Soon, another horse will be added to the victory roll, but it’s not easy to pick who it will be.
The unpredictable nature of the race makes betting on it a complete guess as far as I can see, with last year’s winner romping home at 66/1 and the winner in 2009 being even more of a long shot at 100/1
Me? I make no pretence whatsoever in being able to pick the form and instead revert to a rather less scientific method.
Therefore, tomorrow, my money is on Mr Moonshine, apparently “In good form of late”, but also sporting a pretty cool sounding name and a jockey wearing a rather natty blue and yellow ensemble.
I’ll let you know how I get on.