Grand National 2023

A matter of National concern

This year’s race will come close to destroying its magic

Turf Account

This article is taken from the April 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

I was lucky enough to have been around to watch Red Rum’s astonishing three Grand National winners between 1973 and 1976, but the first I was properly invested in — literally — was Ben Nevis, who ran away with the race in 1980 at 40/1 and helped pay for far more under-age nights in the local pub than a 15-year-old should have had any business with.

The thing about the National is that every winner is memorable — or, rather, becomes memorable through the very fact of winning. I guess it’s much the same as interest in the backstory of Liz Truss; the one fact of her having been PM makes it so.

It’s a cliché that the race is less of a lottery than it used to be. The fences have been softened, the take-off and landing levels have been changed, and the qualifying rating has been raised. They’re all sensible changes and have helped square the circle of retaining what anyone writing about the Grand National seems legally obliged to call its inimitable “magic”, whilst ensuring that the race is also, as much as anything else, one of the classiest handicap chases.

Irish trainer Willie Mullins

But when this year’s race is run on the second Saturday in April, that balance will have undergone a huge shift in the latter direction — a shift which, in my view, will come close to destroying the race’s magic.

Until this year, the field size has been capped at 40. That’s a huge and unique number for a race, and one of the reasons the race is far more than just a very good handicap chase. This year, however, there will be no more than 34 runners.

The main story in the run-up to last year’s race was the planned disruption by so-called animal rights protestors. Thanks, however, to a combination of intelligence, security, legal action and overhype by the protestors, the race went ahead without incident. And that is how these threats should be dealt with — with racing standing its ground on its own terms.

Instead, in a short-sighted and entirely unnecessary sop to the protestors, the number of permitted runners has been slashed. It won’t satisfy them, of course. It won’t even make the race any safer; as has been widely pointed out, fewer runners will probably mean a faster race. But it will damage the race. And thus racing itself.

That’s not the only problem with the National. Of the 94 original entries, 61 came from Ireland. That’s not so much an issue for the race as an indication of the wider problem with British racing. But of those Irish entries, 26 were from Gordon Elliott and 13 from Willie Mullins. Elliott has said he expects to have between eight and ten runners. That could be almost a third of the field.

Irish trainers Gordon Elliott

Elliott has every right to run as many horses as he and his owners want if they qualify under the current rules, but if the British Horseracing Authority can’t see that this dominance by one trainer is a disaster for the bigger picture, both of the race and racing more generally, then it is even more out of its depth than I had assumed.

In previous years around one in three adults has bet on the National, wagering some £150 million. Six hundred million watch it across the planet. It is, by a mile, the biggest race of the year — and thus the biggest contributor to racing’s finances. If the Grand National starts to be seen as merely another handicap, and one with a third of the field supplied by one trainer, we might as well all pack up and go home now.

As for who will win … bear in mind I’m writing this before Cheltenham but my ante post bets are on Hewick at 33/1, Meetingofthewaters at 25/1 and Nassalam at 28/1.

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