It’s a tricky beast, this Virtual Grand National which so many of us will watch on Saturday (ITV, 5pm). Because of our reduced circumstances, it has become something to anticipate on about the same level as that half-pint of Carlsberg that John Mills sinks at the end of Ice Cold In Alex, but it cannot hope to be as satisfying, for all that an immense amount of work has clearly gone in to making it look convincing.
The first odd thing is the runners list. In a normal year, the virtual race would be based around the entries made on the Monday before the National. But the race was abandoned weeks ago and the most recent entry stage that actually happened was at the end of February. So the producers have evidently decided to take the top 40 horses left in at that stage and accept them as the runners.
In reality, a lot of the top 40 would have dropped out by this stage. Joe Farrell, who got a run in last year’s National, was 71st on the list at the end of February. It would have taken some nerve to go through the list, ejecting horses that might not have turned up at Aintree, and you always risk offending someone, but it would have been worth doing.
Peregrine Run, whose pixelated form will be in this virtual race, is not actually qualified for the National, having never raced in a chase beyond 2m7f. Meanwhile, some very interesting potential runners have been shut out, including One For Arthur, who was 44th on the list in February and realistically sure to get a run as long as he stayed sound. The likes of Snugsborough Benny, Give Me A Copper, Lord Du Mesnil, Takingrisks, Borice and Le Breuil would also have been interesting contenders, had they been smuggled into the line-up at someone else’s expense.
Someone has worked very hard on the jockey bookings but I raise an eyebrow at the appearance of Rachael Blackmore on Burrows Saint. She won a hurdles race on him at New Year when Paul Townend was on a more fancied runner from the Willie Mullins yard but Townend would still have had first choice and he surely would not have rejected last year’s Irish National winner in favour of Total Recall, whose odds are three times bigger.
The Twitterati reckon this is ITV’s way of ensuring a National Velvet-like story. They might be right, too, because the three virtual Nationals so far have all fallen to fancied horses at 14-1 or shorter.
Would Lisa O’Neill be on Shattered Love if Jamie Codd had no ride in the race? I doubt it. David Maxwell probably would have insisted on riding his Saint Xavier, but there’s no way he’d have made the weight of 10st 4lb. When he had to do 10st 7lb last season, he threatened to eat the horse in question afterwards. I’m afraid we have to put him down for 3lb overweight, or he’d be so light-headed that he might not make it across the first Melling Road.
The virtual going description is reportedly ‘good’, which is slightly surprising, given that the policy at Aintree seems to be to ensure good to soft or softer. The new clerk at Aintree, Sulekha Varma, tells me it would probably have been good to soft this week, though some watering might have been necessary.
With that in mind, I’m going to have a crack at working out what would have happened in this year’s Grand National, had it taken place this weekend. I’ll post my ‘result’ at 3pm on here and explain how it panned out. In the meantime, please tell me through the comments below what you reckon would/should have happened in the great race and maybe I’ll let that influence me. Would Tiger Roll have won for a third straight year or has the handicapper set him too great a task this time?
Of course, I do a tipping piece here before the National each year and have not met with unqualified success so far. It’ll be different this time, of course, with no pesky horses to prove me wrong the next day. See you back here at 3pm for the unravelling of the great Grand National mystery of 2020…