1973 RED RUM V CRISP
Where it all started for me. Not just my love of the Grand National but horse racing itself.
As a seven-year-old, the big sporting days were magical and defined by the same domestic rituals. Settee and chairs in an arc around the Radio Rentals TV. Curtains shut tight to block out the light and the outside world.
Dad in pole position on the grid, Watneys Party Four (four pints in one can!) not far away and supplies from the kitchen magically appearing consistently through the day courtesy of Mum. It was the same for FA Cup Finals, Olympic Games, Boxing. Except this was different.
Red Rum running down Crisp was one of the only times in his life I saw my Dad shed a tear. He was a huge Richard Pitman fan and loved Crisp too. Dad told me to watch him all the way so we always knew where he was. My first commentary assignment if you like?
Not a difficult one as this magnificent horse from Australia, (is it possible to get more exotic? I thought Scotland was a world away back then) flew every fence and soon was clear.
I was watching in a haze. This horse was on springs. Twenty lengths clear three out, he still looked in fine shape only for the greatest Grand National horse of all time, Red Rum, to run him down late.
Inch by inch, step by step, Crisp was losing his grip. No words can do him justice really, but the video is required viewing. A great sporting moment. Go on, treat yourself and watch again. He'll hold on this time, I'm sure.
2001 RED MAURAUDER
I had been commentating for nine years by this time and had some Grand National experience having my first go as part of a team of four in 1998. By 2001, only two commentators we rostered to cover the race, Ian Bartlett being the other. For the first time, I was allowed to call the finish.
That morning I woke up to rain. Indeed, it would not stop raining all day long. As each race ticked by conditions seemed to get worse and worse and by the time Barton won the preceding Aintree Hurdle, it was clear that there was standing water on the track.
The thought crossed my mind that they may even abandon the race. Why not? We had witnessed the bomb scare in 1997 and false start fiasco of 1993, why not a first abandonment?
We ploughed on however, but the incessant rain meant that a few cameras around the track had been wiped out and I decided to use the BBC pictures to help me call the race.
So, I’m in the Grandstand, Ian down by fence number three and off we went. Conditions for the race were terrible and TV pictures moderate at best. This was a long way from being my best call on a big race.
Unnerved by conditions, I took another psychological blow when at the exact moment a pile up ensued at the Canal Turn, the BBC cut their pictures to a blimp high in the sky. I couldn't identify one horse caught up in it and ended up furiously trying to work out what was no longer in the race.
Just seven horses set off on the final circuit that day and famously when I picked up commentary going to Becher’s second time, there were just two left. Smarty and Red Maurauder. More panic set in. What if NONE of them get round? What do I say?
Back then of course remounting was permitted, and Ruby Walsh and A P McCoy had done just that on Papillon and Blowing Wind. I could see them as dots on the horizon. At least we would get a result.
Richard Guest and Timmy Murphy hacked over the last six fences but even with just two left I still stumbled over my words late on saying that Red Maurauder had fallen at Becher’s 'earlier' rather than last year! It’s odd what you say when the mind is racing along out of synch with you voice.
I’m confident we will never see a race like it in my lifetime.
Hedgehunter was a real favourite of mine and deservedly gained National glory on the second of his five attempts at Aintree. His try attempt saw him front run and seemingly run out of gas when taking a tired looking fall in 2004, Amberleigh Houses's year.
Would stamina be his undoing on this second attempt? The answer was a resounding 'No' as Hedgehunter ran out one of the most impressive winners in recent memory.
Amberleigh House was back to try and regain his crown, Clan Royal and Lord Atterbury there too, second and third in '04 respectively. Forest Gunner carried the hopes of Carrie Ford, winners together of the National trial at Haydock and 2003 winner Monty’s Pass was also back.
On paper, it was a very good year.
I was by now commentating for BBC Radio 5 Live and Matty Hill, now the Melbourne Cup commentator in Australia, had joined our team. He was positioned at Becher’s and caught the drama of Clan Royal being carried out magnificently. Jonjo swears he would have won but I dont think so.
Watch that incident again only this time watch Hedgehunter. On the approach, Ruby Walsh's saddle seems to slip badly with Ruby having to use all his skill to shift his body weight to correct the balance.
Amazing riding. A split second later, Hedgehunter cocks his jaw at Clan Royal and the loose horses before jumping into the lead and the race was over at that point. Down to the last holding a three-length lead and having been ridden more conservatively this time, Hedgehunter fairly powered home.
He came back to finish runner-up twelve months later and ran in the race twice more, unable to make an impact. No Red Rum, agreed but he will always hold a special place in my heart.
2010 DON’T PUSH IT
Plenty of genuinely great jockeys never struck lucky at Aintree. Jonjo O'Neill’s record was terrible. Stan Mellor, Peter Scudamore and John Francome were others for whom glory would prove elusive.
So, it was with a beautiful twist of fate that Jonjo would provide A P McCoy with his first and only National winner aboard Don’t Push It. A little like Hedgehunter, Don’t Push It didnt just win but trotted up.
The night before, BBC Radio 5 Live had staged a special 'audience with AP McCoy' in a vast theatre, I'd guess there were 400 people watching on as Luke Harvey grilled AP about whether or not this would be 15th time lucky.
What struck me was AP's serenity that evening. He was so relaxed, it struck me that the one thing that wasn’t going to happen was that AP would force the issue, get caught up in the occassion and possibly make a false move out on the track.
History shows that Don’t Push It and AP were nearly foot perfect and could be called the winner a long way out. At the Canal Turn, five of them were clear. Five out and the only mistake of the race. A significant one too but by three out, Don’t Push It landed alongside Hello Bud and Black Apalachi.
McCoy, intermittently nudging along was soon back on the bridle. There were two late images that I’ll remember for ever.
Approaching the last, three or four pushes followed by instant relaxation, Don’t Push It was still tanking along. Then after the last, a rarity for McCoy; a glance over the shoulder before pushing the last button to secure the prize.
A Grand National win does not define an entire career. That one should come the way of the greatest jockey who ever lived was such a happy tale to tell.
2012 NEPTUNE COLLONGES
One of the really challenging things about commentating for BBC Radio 5 Live on the National is to try and keep all the main story threads alive for as long as possible.
Bearing in mind the audience tunes in from around the world (online and through World Service Radio) we need to do a little more than merely string a load of horses names together one after the other.
I loved commentating on this race. Just before picking up the closing stages from Gary O'Brien I remember thinking to myself ’what must this be like right now for Ted Walsh?' So that’s what I said.
'Imagine the beating heart of 62-year-old Ted Walsh who right now watches on as his daughter Katie leads the National with two to jump on Seabass.' Walsh’s third place remains the most prominent finish for a female rider in the history of the race. She and Seabass gave it all.
The stories flowed. As poor Synchronized met his end out in the country, it looked for a good while, even very late on that Jonjo would win it again with Sunnyhillboy.
Then Neptune Collonges, in his final race before retirement, summoned amazing reserves of courage to win, giving Paul Nicholls a first win and all supporters of grey horses a much-needed return after 51 years had passed since the last one, Nicholas Silver.
In truth, I wanted a dead heat.
We nearly had one last year too and if Tiger Roll can do it again, he will probably make the list next time around. Be lucky and savour what remains, for all the compromises and changes, the greatest race of them all.