With foot-and-mouth disease cases in Britain moving beyond 1,100 and some 170 meetings canceled by the outbreak or the weather this winter, British racing needed some joy. At least there was the Martell Grand National, April 7, and the rescheduled Cheltenham Festival, April 17-19, to look forward to. Then, on April 2, it was announced Cheltenham was off again because of a foot and mouth outbreak nearby, putting the course in a British Horseracing Board-designated exclusion zone. All the focus now fell on Aintree, a primarily urban course on the northern outskirts of Liverpool, which was never likely to suffer a suspension of racing...unless the weather intervened. Intervene it did, with heavy rain on the first two days and a steady fall on Grand National day itself. The decision to race was questionable, with water standing on the course in some places, but the 154th running of the race went ahead and the 4 1/2 miles over 30 fences could never have been more grueling. Final time of 11:01 was the slowest since 1883 and more than two minutes outside American-owned Mr Frisk's course record set in 1990. Spread betting firms plumped for between nine and 11 finishers from 40 starters, but they were wide of the mark when only four greeted the judge. There were numerous fallers but most damage was done by loose horses, notably at the Canal Turn, the eighth obstacle, where riderless Paddy's Return, a faller at the third, veered sharply left across the fence. Ten horses were eliminated there, either falling, refusing or being brought down. Moral Support, the 10-1 co-favorite was brought down along with last year's second, Mely Moss, and French hope Djeddah. Another co-favorite, Inis Cara, had fallen at the fourth, with the third of the fancied trio, Edmond, waiting until the 15th to hit the deck. Having completed one circuit, only seven horses were left standing and their riders were realizing that just to keep their mounts on their feet would mean a payday. The already modest pace slowed further until the 19th fence, where defending champion Papillon, owned by Pennsylvanian Betty Moran, fell along with Blowing Wind, both victims of a loose horse. Papillon's rider, trainer Ted Walsh's son Ruby, remounted to finish fourth as did British champion jockey Tony McCoy on Blowing Wind. They hacked home together until McCoy went clear after the last fence to secure third. At the 20th fence, with 10 remaining, fancied Beau fell and Unsinkable Boxer was pulled up. That left only two still on their feet...Red Marauder, a 33-1 chance owned and trained by permit-holder (can train only for himself and immediate family) Norman Mason, and Smarty, a 16-1 shot trained by Mark Pitman, son of legendary Jenny Pitman. Smarty closed the gap when Red Marauder jumped badly at the 26th, but Richard Guest, at 35 the oldest rider in the race, and Red Marauder were back in front at the second-last and ran away from an exhausted Smarty to claim the £290,000 winner's purse. The margins between all four finishers were a "distance" as all runners and riders miraculously returned unscathed. Guest, who received a three-month suspension in 1998 for three offenses under the "non-triers" rule and threw his license at the presiding stewards, said: "I was having doubts about whether we should be racing and I told the boss I was going to show-jump him (Red Marauder) around. He's probably the worst jumper ever to win a National--he made 10 mistakes that could have put us on the floor--but he seemed determined that he wasn't going to go down. At the Canal Turn, a loose horse wiped him out, but he climbed through the fence, got a leg out, and stayed upright." Mason, 64, a pub and bingo hall entrepreneur in his native County Durham, lured Guest back from his self-imposed exile and leaves much of the stable work to him.
"Really, he does the training," Mason said. "He works out the programs and I go along with practically everything he says." There was much editorial breast-beating over whether the National should have been run in such appalling conditions. But trainer "Ginger" McCain, who sent out Red Rum to be the only three-time winner of the race in the mid-'70s, said: "It was a fabulous race, a proper, old-fashioned National that had every ingredient possible. Anyone critical of it should take up knitting."