Visitors to Aintree last week must have been mightily impressed with the scope provided by the new stand complex. The notoriously overcrowded enclosures at the top end of the track were miraculously transformed to areas of easy access in the glorious weather and the predicted fashion show was able to disport itself unhindered by the sometimes artic temperatures, which afflict this meeting. There were record crowds throughout the three days.
The unconfined jollity was somewhat tempered by the unexpected victory of Silver Birch in the main event. Two year ago he had looked just the part for the race, but injury intervened and, from being a most promising young horse, he suddenly became a suspect crock. At the time, Paul Nicholls must have thought that 20,000 guineas was a great price for an animal with his future behind him. But the judgement of the unheralded young trainer Gordon Elliot and his team proved to be uncannily accurate and they nursed the cripple back to full health. The forgotten horse of the Grand National became its celebrated hero as he jumped superbly to hold off the possibly unlucky McKelvey in the final lunge to the line.
Yet another Irish winner in an unprecedented sequence of Celtic success. His main danger had appeared to be compatriot Slim Pickings and Barry Geraghty as they turned for home, but Silver Birch recaptured his best form to return to the big time.
It was a race of real drama, from the near fiasco of the start where the communication between started and jockeys might have been better held in Braille, to the early eclipse of one fancied horse after another. The first three in the market all capitulated before the seventh fence, including the inexplicable gamble on suspect jumper Monkerhostin, and the groans of the crowd echoed around the packed enclosures. Other prospective Irish hopes – Hedgehunter and Numbersixvalverde – acquitted themselves honourably, but the ground and the weight seemed to tell against them. One of the most moving sights was Ruby Walsh jumping off the gallant Hedgehunter to run across for buckets of water to cool down his exhausted partner. For good ground the casualty list was attritional, reminiscent of the heavy ground slogs of Earth Summit and Red Marauder. Only thirteen completed but, despite the agonisingly long ordeal of Graphic Approach in front of the stands, there were no fatalities.
If the result had been a little more user friendly, it would have been an ideal day. As it is, the great race is back last back where it belongs – at the centre of racing folklore.
As ever, the overall quality of the meeting was excellent. There were several very fine performances from horses at the top of the national hunt scale. Monet’s Garden had a going day fro once, to hold off the improving Taranis, who never really threatened to overhaul the grey. Well Chief, the highest rated horse of the week, appeared not to get home over this trip. Paul Nicholls had a largely disappointing time, but there was compensation in the form of the prospective two-mile champion, Twist Magic, who had been so unlucky at Cheltenham.
Mighty Man confirmed his affinity for this circuit in eclipsing the enigmatic Black Jack Ketchum, who went from overdrive to full stop in a few weeks. He may be hard to place from now on. Wichita Lineman failed to build on his huge rating, but may have suffered from a prolonged battle for the lead, an unaccustomed role for this game stayer.
Lastly, Aces Four was exceptionally impressive in his novice chase4 and paid a huge compliment to Denman, while Al Eile once again proved that the horses for courses adage is no myth in the Aintree Hurdle. Detroit City looked as though he has had enough for the time being at least.
Punchestown still remains for jump enthusiasts. After that, there is so much more to look forward to next season, with Aintree holding a prized place in the pantheon.