The Grand National is one of the major sporting events of the year and although I have always wanted to go one day, I have never been. As this is my year of ‘getting round to things’, I booked tickets but I certainly didn’t know what to expect.
I have been to Royal Ascot in the sunny south in June but what does a girl (albeit a very grown up one indeed) wear to Liverpool in April? The day before the Grand National is Ladies’ Day and I expected that to be the day when all the women dress in their finery.
I expected to be standing for hours and I expected it to be quite muddy. Sensible shoes or boots don’t look right with fancy clothes so I wore my best coat (I think I look like Kate in it, but my friend refers to it as my Camilla coat!) and comfortable boots. The weather had been cold and wet for months, so I was surprised to see ladies heading for Aintree in thin summer, strapless dresses and I thought that they would regret their choices. In fact, it turned out to be the hottest day of the year so far, and I was sweltering.
The Grand National takes place late on a Saturday afternoon but it is part of a three-day event. On the Saturday there are seven races. The first starts at 1.45 and the last is at 6.20. The Grand National itself is the sixth race at 5.15. At about 4 ¼ miles it is the longest race with the biggest jumps and the highest total prize fund. If you arrive early enough you can walk part of the course and marvel at the fences. However, do you really want to arrive 6 hours before the main event?
I thought we would have to drive to Aintree and find somewhere to park but I found out that Aintree Station is immediately outside the entrance to the racecourse. Extra trains were laid on for the event and although they were busy they were not absolutely packed. All very efficient.
We were met outside Aintree Station by a crowd of protesters who believe that the Grand National is cruel to the horses and described racing as ‘slavery’. There were about 20 protesters and 70,000 racegoers who were largely unmoved by the displays. Thankfully there were no horses killed in the Grand National this year, although Saint Are gave us a bit of a scare. One horse was destroyed on the Thursday when there was a race of amateur jockeys competing over the Grand National course, which seems a very odd thing to do. There are three sets of jumps on the course – the hurdles, the steeplechase and the National. Do the National jumps really need to be so tough?
On arrival at the racecourse, the entry procedure was simple, there was a bag search but quite low key security. The official programme was £5 and contained maps of the site and of the course and details of the runners and riders for all seven races.
There are plenty of food stalls serving rather good food but there are very few places to sit and eat it. I decided it would be best to choose something easy to eat standing up. Drink stalls and bars were plentiful but it was harder to find soft drinks than alcoholic ones.
We were able to visit the parade ring and watch the parade of champions with seven previous Grand National winners. There is also a small museum of the history of the Grand National. The 2018 race was sponsored by Randox Health and they had a marquis where you could have your body age measured. I was delighted to find that my body is seven years younger than me. I am not quite sure how that works!
I then went down to the course and decided to think about betting on the big race. You can, of course, go to the local bookmaker and put a bet on before going to Aintree. I understand that you can get better odds this way but I felt that placing my bets would be part of the excitement on the day.
I like to choose my horse by its name, but from my experience at Royal Ascot a few years ago and my dismal performance at the dog track last autumn, this is not a good strategy. Of course, there is a handicap system in horse racing so all horses should have an equal chance of winning but this does not appear to be the case. We have to consider form and as it has been very wet recently we need to know how the horses perform when the going is soft.
Seeyouatmidnight sounds like a rather slow horse but is tipped to do well with heavy conditions. Anibale Fly has a special significance for me, but as names go it’s got to be Chase the Spud. I backed all three horses with Rich Racing where there is a minimum £5 bet which can be £5 to win or £2.50 each way (for the uninitiated a £2.50 each way bet costs £5). As Anibale Fly was much fancied, I backed that to win and the other two each way which means that they will pay out if the horse comes in the first four.
We found a nice spot to watch the racing, right by a set of jumps. I stood next to a friendly Irishman who obviously understood something about racing and he got some winnings on the early races. There are big screens so that you can see what is going on in parts of the ground that you can’t see from where you are standing, but to be honest, you don’t see very much.
The big race started and we were able to watch it on the screens and follow the commentary. My husband’s choice fell at the first and after a few minutes we saw the horses jump in front of us for a second or so. I’m sure that Chase the Spud was last at this point but my other two horses were doing well. After a few more minutes they passed us again and Seeyouatmidnight was starting to drop back but Anibale Fly was one of the front-runners. Tiger Roll went on to win after a photo-finish but Anibale Fly was fourth. As I had backed it to win, I got nothing.
Although there was one more race and then a concert we started to make our way home. Most of the ladies had taken their shoes off and were now either walking barefoot or buying flip-flops from enterprising salesmen.
The journey back was just as efficient as the journey there but the protesters had all gone home.
My tips for attending the Grand National
Buy your entry ticket online and well in advance, I bought mine six months before the event. The rail travel is reasonably priced and efficient so I would recommend using that. Aintree is at least as nice to visit as Ascot. If you want to fit in, dress as if attending a wedding in midsummer. By all means wear high heels, most of the site is paved, but there is not much seating. Consider taking flip-flops for later on. The food is good and reasonably priced.
The Grand National is a major event in the sporting calendar with a unique atmosphere. However, if you want to see the racing, the best way is to stay at home and watch it on television.
Cost: I paid £59 for a Festival Zone ticket. There are cheaper tickets available but with very limited access.