The Meaning of Being a True Spur

TV’s Death by Mandoline

Kyle Smart Grand National

Death and Tradition at the U.K. Grand National

Can England's grand old steeplechase survive a recent spike in horse fatalities?


Imagine the steeplechase. Such a beautiful, mad idea. Race you to the next church tower and back. Ride over anything in the way. Fields. Fences. Rivers. The course will be the land and the land will be the course. Everything allowed except roads. What could be more simple? Or more brave?

The Irish came up with it. The first recorded steeplechase was run between the Church of Buttevant, in County Cork, and the spire of St. Leger’s, four and a half miles away. That was in 1752, more than a century after flat racing — “the sport of kings” — had become popular with English monarchs and their courts, gathered on the sunny, wide turfs of Suffolk and Hampshire to see the magnificent speed of horses brought over from Arabia and Tangiers.

This was different. Improvised dashes, over stiff country, with hefty bets between young aristocrats, daredevils, and cavalry captains on leave. The horses were big and deep through the heart. Some races were 20 miles long, others run through the fog and the rain. The only witnesses were startled farmers, maybe their daughters. The fashion spread to England, and so did the drama. Captain Arthur Smith leapt inadvertently into a gravel pit. A horse called Chandler reportedly jumped 39 feet over a river in Warwick. There were washouts — “tumbledown races” — where nobody finished. An early attempt to run a steeplechase outside the growing port city of Liverpool, a place connected for millennia with Ireland, a hundred miles over the sea, took place in January 1836. Mr. Nelson and Mr. Blake agreed to race from a village called Aintree, set in the ancestral lands of the Earl of Sefton, to Crosby, near the coast. But the race was a bust. They barely got out of the village before Nelson’s horse fell and broke a leg. They had to shoot it and go home.

So it was some risk — to say the least — when William Lynn, a local hotelier, attempted to draw a crowd of thousands to a much bigger, grander, and more expensive steeplechase on the same spot just more than a month later. Lynn needed something to go right. He had been running horse races on Lord Sefton’s land for the people of Liverpool for seven years. He had built a grandstand and seen off the competition — another course down the road at Maghull — but it had cost him. Now he needed box office.

It’s unclear why Lynn chose a steeplechase. Can you think of a worse spectator sport for February in northern England? The air is reliably freezing and dull, and the whole point of a steeplechase was that it was strung out over miles. There was nothing to see, except in the single moment when the horses passed in a mud-flying blur. Besides, even if it was exciting, steeplechasing was hardly respectable. Unlike flat racing, with its studbook and Jockey Club, the sport was unregulated, the “recognised refuge of all outcasts, human and equine, from the legitimate Turf,” according to the 1886 book Racing and Steeplechasing. Gentlemen rode under false names.

But maybe that’s what tempted Lynn. Liverpool in the 1830s was no royal picnic. It was miles of dirty docks, blooming in the guts of the Industrial Revolution. Trade had grown fortyfold in two generations. The city was thick with immigrants and smoke. It was a dystopia of railways, warehouses, and cranes, a new kind of economic machine held together — oddly enough — by horses. Twenty thousand animals worked in the port, heaving the cotton and sugar and hardwoods. Maybe he thought the novelty and equine bravery of the steeplechase would strike a nerve with these people? Or maybe Lynn was persuaded by the big draw of his races for the last few years, Captain Martin Becher, the best jump jockey in the country? Maybe the Earl himself thought it was worth a go. Sefton was a huge man. A hunchback. A gambler. His nickname was “Lord Dashalong” because his carriage was pulled by four galloping horses.

Lynn went to it. He would organize Liverpool’s municipal feasts until his death in 1870, and he had ideas about spectacle. He plotted a course with promising difficulties — ditches, ploughed fields, a stone wall — and made it triangular, just more than two miles long. The horses would go around twice, passing in front of his grandstand each time. Lynn got lucky with the weather on the day of his race — February 29. It was fine and clear and thousands came. The rich saw pratfalls through telescopes and Becher won by a length on The Duke. (The runner-up had a gate closed in his way by the crowd.)

It’s bloody thankless, though, the race game. The following year, the novelty had worn off. Lynn got fewer runners. There was competition from St Alban’s — supposedly the finest steeplechase in the country — and Liverpool’s do-gooders were on his back. They said the race was cruel. The city withdrew its sponsorship. By 1839, Lynn had sunk £20,000 into his racecourse and he was desperate. He made one last play, relaunching his race as “The Liverpool Great Steeple Chase” and bumping up the prize money. It worked. Seventeen runners competed in a wonderful race. Captain Becher, sensationally, was thrown in a brook; he remounted, and was thrown again. A horse called Lottery, which had been trained jumping over garden chairs, leapt the fences “as if from a springboard” and beat out two Irish favorites. The winning time was 14 minutes and 53 seconds. Everyone was hooked. The Grand National — Britain’s favorite horse race — was born. Lynn went bankrupt.

Vulnerabilities We All Share

The better part of two centuries later, when I headed north to watch this year’s race, almost everything had changed. Liverpool’s docks have died and gone to a blank, postindustrial heaven, a place of oral histories and tapas bars. A bronze cart horse stands near the water, in memory of the city’s absent animals, and the Earl of Sefton’s lands have morphed into “Sefton,” a neighborhood of small, fantastically neat houses and the dross of mechanics and retail parks. Bike lanes are painted on the roads.

At Aintree, Lynn’s racecourse bulges over the roofs. The single grandstand has become five and his race is long fixed in the sporting imagination of this country. After 177 years, Grand National Saturday is the Christmas Day of the British racing calendar. There are more refined occasions — the Epsom Derby and Cheltenham Gold Cup feature younger, faster horses, less chaos, and more connections to the global sport of horse racing — but the Grand National is what the punters turn out for. Seventy thousand people stand on Aintree’s mounds and temporary terraces to watch the big screens and see the tiny movements in the distance. Half the British adult population places a bet — £300m in a normal year. Most amazingly, in a sporting environment almost wrecked by the mega-monoculture of soccer, the Grand National draws a massive domestic television audience. Last year it was 12 million viewers, larger than the figure for 2012’s FA Cup final, which is England’s Super Bowl. The rest of the world can do what it wants, but for nine minutes, Britain stops for a horse race. Screams. Covers its eyes.

To rinse as much revenue as possible from this experience, the National is now the climax of three days of jump racing. It was Wednesday, the day before this buildup begins, and the place was consumed in the preparation of food and drink. Champagne and beer were being carted around in the cold, bitter sunshine. Every third person was some kind of chef, and a receptionist was taking calls about the dress code. “It’s smart casual,” she said. “Just no trainers.” It was how I imagine the scene backstage at one of those mass weddings conducted by the late Reverend Sun Myung Moon. The Grand National’s sponsor, a beer called John Smith’s, had wrapped the stairways of one of the stands in fabric to make them look like giant cans.

At the base of the cans, however, there was a lick of green, a sight of the turf whose “light, springy nature” brought Lynn to Aintree in the first place. Part of the National’s appeal still flows from the formative genius of steeplechase. There is something primal, something that confuses your heart in the sight of 40 horses and riders pouring over senseless obstacles, pounding over four and a half miles of grass on the cusp of England’s contrary spring. Although the course has changed considerably — the stone wall went in 1844; jumps were given inclines in 1961; a concrete plinth next to “The Chair” (the largest jump on the course, 5 feet, 2 inches tall and 11 feet wide) was moved in 1993 — the Aintree fences are still the largest, and most ludicrous, of any racecourse in the country. Horses do not just fall here. They skid and trip and sink to their knees. They take off too early, they take wrong turns, and they take off too late. They crash in midair. Jockeys go flying like socks thrown across a room.

The rest of the power, of course, lies in repetition. With each year, the National weaves its myth a little further. Interrupted by war and other cock-ups, there have been 165 runnings and each contains a story. A few are imperious: In 1935, Golden Miller became (and still is) the only horse to win the Grand National and the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the official championship race of Britain’s steeplechase season, in the same year. The greater part of National lore, however, has nothing to do with perfection. It tells you a lot about the race that Captain Becher is not celebrated for winning it but for falling in a ditch. “Becher’s Brook,” the most notorious fence on the course, where the horses jump on an angle, leaping 4 feet, 10 inches in the air only to come down almost 6 feet on the other side, is his monument.

Grand National stories are about vulnerabilities that we share. They are about the oldest horse, Peter Simple, winning at the age of 15 in 1848. They are about the rain and the seven false starts in 1857, when the winning jockey, Captain Joyce, rode with an injured arm strapped to his side. They are about Grudon’s hooves, filled with butter to keep the snow out of his feet when he won during the blizzard of 1901. They are about Foinavon, the 100-1 long shot so far off the lead that he managed to avoid the enormous pileup of 1967 and stagger on to win the race. Best of all (in my mind), they are about Devon Loch. The Queen Mother’s horse, ridden by a champion jockey, was within sight of the finish line in 1956, only to leap for an imaginary jump and then slump to the grass in confusion. Who among us has not been Devon Loch?

This is the National. “So different … The tradition, the heritage, the history,” Lord Daresbury told me. Daresbury (pronounced “Darr,” not “Dare”) has been the chairman of Aintree for 24 years. He has four sons, all of them jockeys. Daresbury rode in the National himself, in 1975, and fell at the first fence. He lays the jolly emphases of a quite beautiful English accent. “It’s eccentric, really,” he said. “You know it is in Liverpool, but still, you can’t quite believe it’s like this.” The huge chimney of an old metalworks factory filled the view from his office. “Then you look down from the stands and you think, I can’t believe where the course goes. It’s ‘Goodness gracious,’ you know.”

“This Brutal and Cruel Sport”

Disconcerting, then, this matter of deaths. Nothing new, per se. Horses die racing. Always have. The going rate, according to the British Horseracing Authority, is 0.6 fatalities per 1,000 runners on the flat. The number rises to 4 deaths per 1,000 over jumps. The National nudges along somewhat higher, at 6 deaths per 1,000 runners, but its long tradition has not made it immune to changing views on animal welfare or improvements in veterinary care. After the race in 1989, when three horses died, jumps were shaved, landing areas were leveled off, and it was decided that the course would be watered to ensure forgiving ground. Without anyone in particular noticing, the first 10 years of the 21st century were the safest in the history of the race.

Then, in 2011, two horses died. It was the most beautiful spring day. Everybody was in T-shirts. Nobody was remotely ready for the green screens suddenly thrown up around fallen horses in the middle of the track, right in the camera line. The rest of the field was diverted past with flags while vets attended to Ornais and Dooney’s Gate. Unsure of what to say, commentators called them “obstacles.” To make matters worse, the winning jockey beat his horse, Ballabriggs, too many times with the whip. The survivors shook in the heat. It was a disastrous spectacle and Aintree ordered a review before spending £250,000 on more changes to the course, including a new cooling-down tent for the horses. But the organizers also insisted that much would stay the same. There would be this busy field of 40 horses. Becher’s Brook, the combination of solid fence, jump, and sudden drop, which jockeys call “jumping off the edge of the world” and which had accounted for almost a third of horse deaths in the race since 1931, would remain Becher’s Brook. The race would remain, in the phrase, “the ultimate test.”

The following year, two more horses died. Both were supposed to be good National stories. According to Pete was 11 years old, owned since birth by a man who ran a garage in North Yorkshire. The gelding had all the credentials to join the race’s anthology of humble heroes. The other was Synchronised, the winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup and one of the likeliest horses in a generation to emulate the great Golden Miller. But even to people watching their one horse race of the year, it was obvious that Synchronised did not want to run. As the horses gathered untidily around the tape for the start, the favorite just wouldn’t settle. He cantered uneasily and threw his rider, the champion jockey from Northern Ireland, AP McCoy. When the race finally began, According to Pete and Synchronised both fell at Becher’s Brook. According to Pete collided with another horse and broke his shoulder. The family pet was put out of his misery. “We were looking for him, but he never came,” his owner said afterward. Synchronised plunged on, riderless, running with the herd. Half a mile later, one of his hind legs broke on the flat.

The newspapers were appalled. They filled columns with awkward, philosophy exam–style questions: “How many horses must die for our pleasure?” As discreetly as it could, John Smith’s, the race sponsor, declined to renew its deal. The BBC let the broadcast rights pass to a smaller channel. Those who know their history assured themselves that this was part of the Grand National. William Lynn faced protests to his race in 1838. After the race in 1954, when four horses died, Lord Ammon brought the matter to the upper chamber of the Houses of Parliament:

These dumb animals, noble creatures and some of the best friends of man, deserve much better treatment than they receive in this particular instance, and I think it is the duty of people, particularly those situated as your Lordships are, to take what steps they can to see that some modification is brought about, that something is done to humanize this race, and that our fair fame is not lowered before the whole world by the continuance of this brutal and cruel sport.

The end has been proclaimed so many times and it has never come. In the 1970s, Aintree was nearly sold to property developers. In the 1980s, the crowds dropped to below 10,000. In 1993, the start was a fiasco and the race was abandoned. The National is like one of its old horses — stumbling, but always rising, somehow, to clear the next impossible fence.

But Daresbury was desperate not to get caught out again. He thinks in racing terms. “Don’t get behind contemporary opinion,” he said in our conversation. “Don’t lag. Set the pace.” Late in 2012, Aintree announced yet more changes. The start would move forward by 90 yards to reduce the speed at which the horses hit the first fence. The camber at Becher’s would be leveled. More important, the birch cores of 14 of the 16 jumps would be replaced by plastic. The fences would still be topped by a foot or so of Cumbrian spruce, loose branches that the horses kick out as they go over. And they would be as high as ever — the smallest Aintree fence is as tall as the largest jump anywhere else on a British racecourse — but the plastic would be more forgiving to the crashing body of a half-ton horse.

“Let’s monitor them over time,” said Daresbury. “Don’t let’s be knee-jerk.” But he was in a corner. After two years of tweaking, there wasn’t much left of the National to review. The blood of a thoroughbred horse must be seven-eighths pure, or else he is no thoroughbred. When is the National no longer the National?

The Legend of Red Rum

Ten days before the race, I drove to Cholmondeley Castle, in Cheshire. The recent English winter has been absurd. Instead of buds on the trees there was old snow on the ground. Strange, white spillages, too depressing to clean up. In the grounds of the castle (which is pronounced “Chumley”), Donald McCain Jr. trains 122 racehorses. His life has been almost entirely wrought by the world’s greatest steeplechase.

He was born to a father who believed in the “One Good Horse.” In the early 1970s, McCain Sr., known as “Ginger,” was a horse trainer in Southport, a few miles from Liverpool, who made money fixing cars and driving a taxi. In 1972, he persuaded a passenger to spend £6,000 on a racehorse named Red Rum. The horse had been bred to run a mile on the flat. His sire had speed, and his dam was mad. When he arrived at Ginger’s stables, behind a mechanic’s yard, he was lame. He had a bone disease called pedalosteitis, which was cured running on Southport’s beach and swimming in the Irish Sea. (Ginger had nowhere else to train his horses.) Red Rum ran in five Grand Nationals, won three, and came second in two. He never fell in 100 races. In his first National victory, in 1973, Red Rum jumped the last fence 15 lengths behind the leader, an enormous Australian horse named Crisp, and caught him on the line. The footage of the final 494 yards shows this to be possible and impossible at the same time.

They say Red Rum saved the Grand National. He transformed life for the McCains and lived to the age of 30. “One of your daft reporter fellows said it must have been like losing the wife when he died,” Ginger told the BBC. “Losing the wife? There are 25 million women in this country.” Father and son trained their next National winner in 2004. In 2011, Donald alone trained Ballabriggs, who won amid the sun and the heat and the deaths.

The McCains’ kitchen smelled of bacon. Jockeys and groomers came and went with questions and lists of horses. McCain Jr. gave orders. His father died 18 months ago. The stable was in his head. He had three runners in the race the following week, including Ballabriggs, and his year revolves around this one, incalculable day. “You train your horse in every other race to be the best horse in the race it’s in,” he said. “If that works, then great, you’ve done your job. … Maybe 70 percent of the Grand National is like that. Maybe 50 percent. Beyond that, you need a bit of help from elsewhere.” It is the extreme difference of possible outcomes — what lies on the far side of those jumps — that keeps him coming back. McCain called the National “this All-Engulfing Thing.”

So he is sick of having to justify its existence, most of all to people who never watch another horse race. Furious that he felt any obligation whatsoever to apologize after Ballabriggs won in 2011, finishing in the second-fastest time ever run. “At the end of a marathon, when an athlete has run and he’s wobbling, it’s ‘Oh, what a great effort.’ ‘Look, he’s out on his feet.’ My horse was tired, you know,” said McCain. “But he did that because he was doing his best.” It was just not true, McCain told me, that the National is dangerously crowded. Aintree is vast — the widest racecourse in the country. And the horses go through their lives like pampered princes. It’s true, some die. “But there are worse ways for a horse to go,” he said. “Plenty of worse ways to go.”

But still, there was an edge of worry. Nothing to do with the animal rights people, or the ones who only switch on their televisions so they can look away. As McCain spoke, I sensed larger forces moving away from the Grand National. The race itself can be as mighty as it likes, but it cannot survive if the wider sport of steeplechasing becomes obsolete. “There used to be a network around it,” the trainer said. “There used to be a system of races and tracks that you go to educate a horse.” He listed English racecourses where no one goes anymore: Newcastle, Wetherby, Haydock Park. Over the years, they have all reduced their jumps, shortened their courses. The future is for smaller, quicker, all-purpose racehorses, galloping over silly hurdles, running in straight lines.

We went into Ballabriggs’s stable. The horse stands 17 hands high and is deep through the heart. He will run and jump for mile after mile. He turned his head and looked at me through a single, caramel, disinterested eye. “The big, old-fashioned staying chaser,” said McCain. These words were like a prayer. “So little racing for a horse like him.”

Witnessing a Fall

The train was full of men wearing the same black, square-tipped shoes. No trainers in sight. Just suits and shirt-and-ties bought as combinations. The girls were all done up and freezing, the hairs on their bare arms visible and standing on end. It was the first day of racing, and we piled into Aintree under a bright, cold sky, as William Lynn prayed we might. Quickly — and comfortingly, for British people — we were socially organized by our tickets. The “Tattersall” holders turned left to the open mounds, the food court, and the Aintree International Equestrian Centre, a gray hangar stripped back to the three primal elements of the 21st-century racetrack experience: bar, screen, and toilet.

To the right lay a more genteel city of marquees, enclosures, bars, and stands, whose passport holders wore their badges on little, colored lanyards: “County Stand Roof,” “Winners Bar,” “Owners and Trainers.” This was also the realm, although open to the public, of the parade ring, the pre-parade ring (where the horses were saddled up), and the weighing room for the jockeys. The tone was professional here. Accents Irish or aristocratic. No one wore a suit. The dress was tweed. Binoculars in boxes. Ladies in fur hats. Up close, the costume of the English sporting classes absolutely crawled with animals. A tie of leaping horses. A handbag in the shape of a goose. A waistcoat of owls.

I walked out in the middle of the course. One of the unchanging things about Aintree is its preposterous size. The populated part of the course is still clustered around a single corner of Lynn’s triangle, and the northeasterly wind quickly scattered the drone of the Tannoy. Out in this strange, inland territory there were ponds, bits of gorse and scrub that have been here since Sefton’s day, and men wearing bibs that said “Horse Catcher.” I was out there at 3:40 p.m. for the Fox Hunters’ Chase, one of two races run over a single circuit of the National fences days before the big race on Saturday. The Fox Hunters’ is for amateur and younger riders (one of Lord Daresbury’s sons was competing), and I went and stood by The Chair, the largest jump on the course. It looked like it had been built to hold back a river. It was the first time I had ever seen a Grand National fence jumped at close quarters, and as the 24 horses approached — the 96 hooves, the 12 tons of muscle and bone — I felt a shuddering sense of time and ground shortening. Then they cleared it. Actually, they smote it.

A giant’s claw came through the spruce. The air smelled suddenly of Christmas and a great black horse was falling. It was Paddy Mourne, an Irish outsider, and one of the things that TV doesn’t tell you is how far and how massively and how intricately these animals slide. I saw the short hairs of his belly, his hooves, and his head rising while his knees sought purchase. Everything was in motion, 20 feet from the jump that had tripped him. The rest of the field poured around him like water and then he was up and running with the herd. The jockey limped off, cradling his arm.

What is the rational response to this sight? I rejoined the crowds and headed into a bar. A group of men was standing under a screen. With time to kill between races at Aintree, they were watching a minor steeplechase in Taunton, more than 200 miles away. At the final fence, the leading horse caught a leg, stumbled, staggered on, then sank to his knees. As he crumpled, another horse crashed into him from behind. It was a nasty collision and the man beside me exploded. “Ya fookin durty bastard!” He yelled at the TV. “He’s fookin taken mine out!” The man’s voice was Liverpudlian and thick with outrage. His friends fell about with laughter, and led him to the bar. They would get drunk. Everyone would get drunk. In their own language, in their own way. Outside, a gilded young man in loafers was heading for the parade ring. He turned to his friend: “Let’s get really skulled tonight.”

“Bloody Great Green Stone Walls”

Each day, a horse died. Each time, I didn’t find out until I’d arrived back at my hotel. The wide expanses of Aintree and the official reluctance to say anything make it almost impossible to hear these things at the racecourse. The first death was during the Fox Hunters’ Chase, the race I watched at such close quarters. A horse called Battlefront had a heart attack as he approached the 11th fence, on the far side of the course. It could have happened anywhere, but it happened at Aintree, and within hours there were headlines around the world: “Tainted by disaster,” “Tarnished by fatality.” The news also torpedoed Aintree’s careful preparations for the story line it was pushing at this year’s National: That the race would be saved by its first female winner. Katie Walsh is the smiling daughter of a leading trainer, the tough little sister of a champion jockey. She came third in 2012. But she was also riding Battlefront when he died, so her prerace press conference was canceled.

Then Little Josh plowed through one of the new plastic fences. The horse just didn’t take off. It was during the next day’s run over the National course, The Topham Chase. His jockey — another telegenic hope for the main event, Sam Twiston-Davies — went down into the turf as if he had been slingshot, but rose unharmed. Little Josh, though, hobbled sideways, his left foreleg hanging from a broken shoulder. He was disposed of, again out of sight. I only realized later that I had seen Twiston-Davies a few minutes afterward, running up the weighing room steps, his head turned to one side as if to lessen the blow. His mother was there, telling him not to think. “Get ready for your next race,” she said.

The frustration for everyone is that the National is an experiment short on statistical power. The race simply does not happen often enough, or under sufficiently controlled conditions, to yield real trends about the dangers it contains. The weather is always different. They keep fiddling with the jumps. To really understand what kills racehorses, you need to study thousands of races, hundreds of fatalities. That is what Tim Parkin did. Parkin is a vet and research fellow at the School of Veterinary Medicine at Glasgow University. Between 1998 and 2005, he examined 300 pairs of broken horse legs sent to him from British racecourses. He concluded that most fatalities come down to two specific fractures: the proximal phalangeal (corresponding to the ankle) and the third metacarpal (corresponding to the knee). Very few have anything to do with jumps. What kills racehorses is the combination of stress to their bones and the reason that we love them: speed. For one study, Parkin watched recordings of hundreds of life-ending races. In 54 races over jumps in which a horse broke his leg, 44 times the horse didn’t fall over. These are sports cars, burning out on the straight. The most boring, plausible reason why more horses die in the Grand National than in other horse races is that the horses tend to be older; there are more of them running; and they run for longer. The risk accumulates by stride.

Which means there’s nothing definitive to say about the obvious — Aintree’s terrible fences, its “bloody great green stone walls.” There is only conjecture, and the death of Little Josh set off the first murmurings about the new plastic fences. It is an adage among trainers and jockeys that easier fences make for more dangerous courses. Everyone goes faster, flatter, harder. The safest thing, they say among themselves, might actually be to raise the spruce by a few inches. Toughen it up a bit. Sap the gathering speed. But the public will never accept this. They do not ride. They do not race. They only see the monstrous leaps. “On the subject of fencing,” the Earl of Suffolk wrote in 1889, “men will always find ground for argument.”

“There Is an Emotion to This and It Never Leaves You”

By Saturday, there was only 4:15 p.m. to think about. I placed my bets. Like the rest of the country, I wanted the woman to win. She was on Seabass, which had become, out of sentiment, the favorite. Without mentioning why, pundits on the television and on the Aintree loudspeaker system began loudly urging her victory. “If Katie wins the National, it would be great for racing and this place,” said a man from the gambling site Betfair, his voice filling the air. “Everybody wants an order of Seabass.”

The pre-parade ring was empty. Owners and their families sat quietly in a small set of bleachers facing 24 doorless stables, cubicles really. There are 40 horses in the National, so they come out in twos and threes to be saddled up. I sat and waited and after days staring at thoroughbred racehorses, witnessed an apparition: Two ordinary ponies appeared, walking across the stable grass. The hair on these friendly animals was thick. They clodded along with big feet and loose ankles and round, barrel bodies. They were like a joke. Then the first three National horses stepped out. No. 16, Joncol, and two rank outsiders, no. 32, Mr Moonshine, and no. 35, Auroras Encore. They swayed past us, steered by the huge muscles in their rumps, and I asked the man next to me — all gorgeous tweed — if he had a connection to the race. His grandfather, he said, was Neville Crump, who trained three Grand National winners in the 1950s and early 1960s. “There is an emotion to this and it never leaves you,” the man said. “It is a complete drug.” He said this twice.

It took a long time to begin because there were simply so many runners. They kept appearing on the track, after I was sure there were enough. (In 1848, two horses were found to have the same name.) Then the ritual was ready to be run. Another year had passed. I stood at the base of William Lynn’s grandstand and heard the people let go a roar that contained something vast, which I recognized, for the first time, as the All-Engulfing Thing. Then the 40 horses were away, spreading out across Sefton’s land. They jumped the first and rapidly diminished. At the third, they disappeared from view altogether. We were watching the giant screens anyway, but it was around then that we all realized no horse had fallen. They jumped the fourth. No one fell. There was an elongated cheer. It was hard to be sure. But all 40 were still running. Then the fifth. They all went over. Now the field had spread out, and it was not so much a race but a herd that we were cheering, daring them to jump over Becher’s Brook and never be harmed. Which they did. The seventh as well. They ran on. They reached the Canal Turn with the entire field intact, which has never happened in the 166 runnings of the Grand National, and there was elation, to be sure, but there was also — no question — in that smooth progression the intimations of a loss.

A few fell — of course they did. But 33 horses began the second lap, and from then on it was a march over the plastic fences and a series of withdrawals. Ballabriggs pulled up. Imperial Commander, officially the best horse in the race, and the latest Gold Cup winner to fail at Aintree, pulled up. Seabass never hit the front, and at the final fence — still far from home — in a group of three, a horse made the jump of his life. It was no. 35, Auroras Encore. Suddenly, definitively ahead. I realized he was one of the quiet outsiders from the pre-parade ring. He was 66-1 to win the Grand National. He had won two races in four years before today and now he was nine lengths clear, flanked by a riderless horse. The line was right there. Auroras Encore was 11 years old. His leg could break at any moment. People were barely clapping, because no one had bet on this animal. No one knew how to feel. The National had defied us. No one was hurt. No one saw this coming.

Sam Knight (@samknightwrites) is a magazine writer from London.

Filed Under: College Sports, The U