A couple of years ago in the sequence of posts about getting British citizenship, I mentioned, as one of the strange things the UK has decided that you need to know for your citizenship test, that the Grand National is a horse race. Good thing I knew that, because yesterday was Grand National day.
A horse race is so full of color and motion that it’s a crime I can’t show you pictures–or rather, it would be a crime if I did post photos of today’s event, because I wouldn’t own the rights to them. But you can watch the BBC footage of the race yourself (you’ve got a choice: the first video on the page is the race in real time, the last video on the page is an edited version with different camera angles on each fence, including some amazing footage from a vantage point under the horses as they jump), and see some phenomenal still photos at the Daily Mail’s web site.
The first year we lived in England the BBC televised the Kentucky Derby. We invited everyone we knew to a Derby party, which is how we learned that almost no one will come to a party on a bank holiday (Monday holiday) weekend, they’ve all got plans. We couldn’t un-issue the invitations and didn’t know who might or might not come, so we ended up watching the race awkwardly with four guests and a vast amount of bourbon and mint for juleps. It would have been much less embarrassing if no one had come at all.
But that was the last time we got coverage of the Kentucky Derby, and to add a sports channel that does show the race to our satellite subscription, just for one day, would be too expensive (in effect, there’s a 3-month minimum), so we’ve turned to British racing instead, and the Grand National is the big one.
It’s a steeplechase, in fact, and I have to admit I have never seen a more exciting race of any kind than yesterday’s. It started with the favorite tossing its jockey before the race even began, and prancing off up the course. After staff had caught him and reunited horse and rider, there were a further two false starts, in one of which the whole pack of 40 horses surged through the tape that marks the starting line. (They can do that because the tape is the only indicator of the starting line; they don’t use the kind of starting gate I’m used to seeing in thoroughbred racing.)
They run the Grand National (or just the National, if you feel you’re on first-names terms) at Aintree near Liverpool, twice around a course for a total of 4.5 miles and 30 jumps—most of them fences covered with brush, but some with dry ditches or water-fill ditches as well. Over the years—the Grand National was first run in 1893; the Kentucky Derby began earlier, in 1875—some of these jumps have been given names: the Chair, Becher’s Brook (because of a rider called Becher who ended up in the water there), the Canal Turn.
And at most of the fences, somebody falls off or falls down. This is a problem when there are 40 horses coming over the fence at once; you get free-way style pile-ups. All those superbly muscled bodies soaring over a fence is a majestic sight, but when it ends up with some of those perfect, gloriously fit horses breaking legs and having to be put down, it’s a real tragedy. Animal rights groups and others advocate everything from making the course safer to ending horseracing entirely. Oh, and the little scraps of bright color you can see between the hooves? Those would be the silks of the fallen jockeys, who are curled up tight hoping that nobody steps on them. (Nobody seems to have set up jockey’s rights groups to look out for their health and welfare, though to be fair, they chose to be there and the horses didn’t.)
Some of the fences have been altered recently to make them less dangerous (there was once a drop of almost 7 feet on the far side of Becher’s Brook, and the landing was a steep downward slope) but horses still fall, and are marked F in the official results. Then there’s REF for refused (the horse stopped and wouldn’t go over), PU for pulled-up (which I don’t get; to pull-up a horse would generally be to rein it in, but why would a jockey stop? Presumably if s/he thought continuing would be dangerous—I don’t know), and BD for brought down (which I gather means that they fell but only because of an unavoidable pile-up).
My favorite is US for a horse that unseats its rider, because some of them keep going, caught up in the drama. Of 40 horses starting, 15 made it to the finish line with jockeys still on. One riderless horse was even ahead for a while yesterday—makes sense, as they’ve ditched a considerable weight. Jump jockeys are allowed to be a lot heavier than the guys I knew in Kentucky when I was waitressing during college—tiny men made of nothing but bone and muscle and determination, who came in for breakfast after the morning workout and tipped lavishly—and the National is a handicapped race, with horses carrying up to 164 pounds.
The 2012 Grand National ended in a photo finish to beat all photo finishes. The commentator said the winner had it by “a nostril”. And given the milling pack of horses before the start, which meant some runners clearly started more than a length behind others, the whole idea of winning-by-a-nose or winning-by-a-short-head seems a bit odd. The winner, or the poor disappointed second placer who missed winning by a fraction of a second, might have actually run a longer race than the other.
Mounted police escorted Neptune Collanges (bred in France, where there’s a region named Collanges) to the weighing-in. There was nothing similar to the Derby’s blanket of roses; the winner got a special blanket printed with “WINNER” below a facsimile of the label from the beer that sponsors the event. As the beer maker presumably forks over the £975,000 (over $1,500,000) prize money, I ought to give the name, I suppose: it’s John Smith’s. I resent companies that add their names to historic races, but I’m sure I shouldn’t; without sponsorship, maybe such events would die out, so we’re stuck with “The John Smith’s Grand National”, and with “John Smith’s” printed across each jockey’s chest.
Thank goodness the Kentucky Derby doesn’t yet carry the weight of the name and logo of some corporation trying to sell us something. At least John Smith’s has been selling beer since before the National began, and so can lay claim to a similar classic status; the day I first heard the Triple Crown called the Chrysler Triple Crown Challenge was a dark day indeed.
John Smith’s isn’t a terribly obtrusive name, anyway. The same can’t be said for the names of the horses. In thoroughbred racing, since no horse can ever have the name of another, the names get stranger every year. Yesterday’s race included runners called Becauseicouldntsee, Organizedconfusion, and In Compliance, as well as my personal favorite, Shakalakaboomboom, which I think I like just because it makes the race callers have to say Shakalakaboomboom a lot. (A video going around the internet features a racehorse named Arggghhhh, which the commentator had a lot of fun with.)
Most unfortunately, horses named Synchronized (the favorite) and According To Pete were injured so badly they had to be put down; the BBC commentary took on a somber tone after that announcement, which put a damper on the day. And one of the jumps had to be avoided on the second time around the track as medics tended a jockey with a broken leg—fortunately humans’ broken legs, unlike horses’, can be immobilized so they’ll heal. An official with a flag waved the riders to a detour, while others held up screens around the first-aid action.
But there was still jubilation around Neptune Collanges and jockey Daryl Jacob, who like a lot of the jockeys, is Irish. That includes Katie Walsh, whose mount, Seabass, came in third, making her the highest ranked female jockey in the National. Miss Walsh’s sister-in-law also rode in yesterday’s race, and her brother has won the National before; their father is a well-known trainer.
I used to win little private Derby pools pretty frequently by knowing the jockeys–rather than studying the form of the horses, I followed the jockeys, because the horses with the best chance will get the best riders–but the famous Kentucky jockeys whose names I knew have all retired now. It’s a new and multicultural crop. I don’t know the jockeys or the horses and I can’t even watch the Derby television coverage, but the first Saturday in May will forever be Derby Day to me.
As the excitement of this year’s Grand National dies down, the excitement of the Kentucky Derby starts to build. The official Derby web site has a countdown clock, y’know. As I type this, there are 20 days, 40 hours, 47 minutes to go. Time to stock up on bourbon.
(Photos from Wikipedia, used under the Creative Commons license.)