THE GRAND NATIONAL AND MY RACING STORY
By now, cameras and media should be rolling into the winning yard of the 2020 Grand National. A fair chunk of Liverpool should be rising with sore heads. The Trainers’ Title between Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls may well have been decided, and a new breed of horse racing fans will have been captured.
Only one of the above may be true on this Sunday morning after the National should have been run, but sadly, the most important aspect may well have been lost; the birth of future horse racing devotees.
That is somewhat sad and somewhat worrying for the Sport of Kings. Chances are, we’ll be fine, it’s only one year, but the Grand National is the greatest shop window for future horse racing fans; certainly from my own experience, as it was this very race that lured me in, and has kept me in. How lucky was I! How unlucky were you!
My interest and current employment in horse racing basically comes from family and Nationals. My first ever memory of horse racing was Son Of War winning the 1994 Irish Grand National. As a small child, I was in a pub in Ireland with my father who had backed the grey to win – solely on colour – and I remember the pub going berserk when the Peter McCreery-trained and Francis Woods-ridden horse crossed the line in front.
I was carried over by one of my father’s friends, John Hickey of Clonmel, “Slugger” as he was affectionately known, whose daughter is now married to Irish trainer Thomond O’Mara, the academy where Champagne Fever was produced. Slugger popped me up on the counter of the Ladbrokes across the road, the winning ticket in my grasp, and out came the money.
I couldn’t carry it all over I was so small, so it was put in a plastic bag. The Irish love for plastic bags still baffles me to this day, my grandmother used to hoard them and keep what felt like hundreds in a draw. Anyway, I waddled over with the money and as I entered, I was greeted with a loud cheer. I didn’t understand at the time, really, but now I do and they were great days for all those people. You can’t beat that feeling of backing a winner. Still.
By the time Papillon came around in 2000, I was older and could comprehend. By this stage of my life, I watched a bit of racing, mostly The Morning Line actually, usually with my grandfather, but I was very much a GAA, soccer and pitch and putt fan first and foremost. All three of these sports at the time were comfortably clear of horse racing in my watching and participation, but that would all change on April 8th 2000.
“I’ll put a fiver each-way on that Ted Walsh horse in the Grand National for you this morning”, my grandfather roared as I left the house to go play a soccer match. Match played. Showers had, and into town with all the lads to have a mooch around. That routine was most Saturday’s in my early childhood. They were great days. We had it all. I’d love to do it over again.
“Quick, what time is it?!” I asked one of the lads when in town. “3.45 came the reply” as I sprinted to the nearest bookies to watch. My memories of the race itself are not great, as I couldn’t see large parts of it in the local betting shop. I was far too young to be in there, but I had managed to sneak in undetected thanks to the large crowds.
Not watching it properly was a pain, but I was feeding off the crowd in the bookies when I couldn’t catch a glimpse, and loving it. There is no bigger race to feed off than the National; the “oohs” and “ahhs” are unrivalled, like some of the characters you used to meet in the bookies. I do miss those days, betting shops were great back then and they were brilliant fun to be in. Especially if you were winning!
Winning was something I think most Irish punters did on that year’s National, as when a young 20-year-old Ruby Walsh crossed the line in front, and stood up in what would become Walsh’s iconic, own celebration, the roof nearly came off the betting shop. It felt like everyone was on. There were grown-men jumping around and hollering like Prairie Dogs; a complete joyful scene. People lost in happiness.
I had to join in, I was buzzing, and did so, although that didn’t last long as I was spotted by one of the cashiers. A thunder-faced woman told me to get out; all these years later I think I know why, it was a bloodbath for the bookmakers! Plus, that whole thing about me being underage. I suppose!
An Irish horse winning “the English National”, as my grandfather called it, back in those days was huge and I suspect Irish punters up and down The Island were just simply backing an Irish horse because he was one of our own running in England. There was no form, no speed figures, even the ground probably wasn’t considered, it was just my grandfather weighing in with “Ted Walsh’s horse”. An Irish horse.
You can imagine the conversation now if trying to get a form-related opinion on why he backed Papillon. It would come something like, “well, he wasn’t going over there for the fresh air, was he?!” And wouldn’t he be right.
I’m happy he was, too, because what followed for me out of the winnings were two new Man United jerseys. All my pocket money in those days went on Man United accessories. I was obsessed with the club, Beckham, Cantona and Keane.
Somewhere back then in my own mind, I must have wondered, “could I get two new Man United jerseys every week? This punting thing could be the way forward”.
I used to be a bit embarrassed to say that gambling, gambling on the Grand National, was probably what first brought me to horse racing proper, but now, not a chance. We all know the horror stories from gambling, but in the right hands, it’s a fantastic pastime for those that pursue it intelligently and with respect.
Kenny Rogers said it best in The Gambler:
“You've got to know when to hold 'em
Know when to fold 'em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run”
Having covered 4m4f and jumped 30 fences in the Grand National, it was Papillon under Ruby Walsh – accompanied with a couple of Man United jerseys – that thankfully never saw me fold on horse racing. What followed was many summers working in Ballydoyle. An Equine Science degree. A job with At The Races. And many, many losing bets.
One small bet put on for me and we end up here, a type of Butterfly Effect. Sometimes I think about how mad it really is, especially around Aintree time.
Thank you Papillon. Thank you the Walsh family. Thank you the wonderful race that is The Grand National, but above all, thank you Grandpa