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Aintree

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Image: Aintree

The John Smith’s Grand National Meeting is running at Aintree with a full field of 40 horses, the best of them handicapped with weight and taking big fences at speed. The Canal Turn, a huge fence with a substantial drop and a 90 degree turn, is jumped twice and accounts for many fallers each year.

Usually a number of spectators in the large crowds fall under the spell of large hats. Despite the sunshine pouring down, that has not been the case this year.

As is pretty well known the most famous fall in Grand National history gave rise to a spectacular literary career. Former RAF pilot and jockey Dick Francis was riding a horse owned by the Queen Mother when the horse collapsed fifty yards from the finish line (probably spooked by the roar of the crowd, he trotted away just fine). Francis went on to write (with considerable help from his wife Mary) more than 38 mysteries and sell 60 million copies, several of them to me. I love his descriptions of racing, which are well worth the skullduggery. Dead Cert, his first book, begins in the middle of a race –

"The mingled smells of hot horse and cold river mist filled my nostrils. I could hear only the swish and thud of galloping hooves and the occasional sharp click of horseshoes striking against each other."

Aintree the racecourse has also experienced stunning falls and recoveries. The first official Flat fixture was staged on July 7, 1829 with stone walls, a stretch of ploughed land, and two final hurdles. In the 1970s and 80s it appeared the land would be sold, but Aintree’s imminent demise was staved off by the public, commercial sponsors, and ingenuity, and it is now enjoying its best years ever.

Also a survivor, Francis will be at Aintree to open the new changing rooms and judge the best turned-out horse. He has a new book coming out in September.

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