Potters Corner became the nearest thing we will see to a Grand National winner this year when he was declared the winner of ITV’s Virtual Grand National on Saturday evening. The computer simulation was broadcast in the slot that would normally be occupied by the Aintree race, abandoned along with the rest of the sporting programme because of the coronavirus crisis, and the result was disappointment for any romantics who hoped that Tiger Roll might be allowed to win, thus completing a hat-trick of sorts.
The winner of the actual National for the last two years, Tiger Roll was the 5-1 favourite for this virtual race and his backers were given plenty of encouragement when he was shown in the lead at The Chair fence just before halfway. Davy Russell, who rides the horse, was possibly quite offended by that, as he has been scrupulously patient for the past two years, waiting until at least the third-last to hit the front.
In view of the aggressive tactics the computer ascribed to Tiger Roll, it was no surprise to see the virtual runner getting ‘tired’ from the home turn. Aso, a 66-1 shot, pressed on at that point, only to fall at the second-last, prompting his regular jockey, Charlie Deutsch, to react with disbelief from home, in a moment posted on Twitter by his housemate Ed Bailey.
That allowed Potters Corner to come home ahead of Walk In The Mill and Any Second Now, with Tiger Roll fourth. At 18-1, Potters Corner will have had plenty of supporters but surely not enough to prevent a net profit for the bookmakers and that in turn should ensure a healthy contribution to the health service, as bookmakers had promised to pass any profit to NHS Charities Together, the umbrella organisation for more than 140 NHS charities.
Those who found the winner will surely include many Welsh punters, as Potters Corner is trained on the South Wales coast near Ogmore-by-Sea by the up-and-coming trainer Christian Williams. Seeing his horse declared the ‘winner’ must have been a bittersweet moment for Williams, who nursed serious hopes for Potters Corner after his Welsh Grand National success in December. No Welsh-based horse has won the real National since Kirkland in 1905.
ITV claimed additional historical significance for the outcome by pointing out that the 17-year-old jockey Jack Tudor had just become, sort of, the youngest winning National jockey since Bruce Hobbs in 1938. In reality, the inexperienced Tudor would need to have ridden a handful of winners since mid-March, when racing was suspended, if he was to be qualified to participate in this National.
The real Grand National was cancelled, along with the rest of the traditional three days of racing at Aintree, on 16 March, when the Jockey Club decided it could not hope to stage the event in light of government advice against non-essential travel and social contact. Until then, it had still seemed possible to stage the race behind closed doors, but all horse racing was brought to a halt the following day.
While a computerised Grand National is a poor substitute for the real thing, the enormous effort at accuracy made by its programmers has rewarded the Virtual National with some quite prescient results in the past three years. Cause Of Causes, the first ‘virtual’ winner in 2017, was actually second in the race itself the next day, while the computer accurately predicted Tiger Roll’s first success the next year. Rathvinden, the virtual winner of 2019, then finished third in the real thing.
Fans of Potters Corner can allow themselves to believe he would have maintained the computer’s excellent run, had he been allowed. Hopefully, he will get the chance next April.
Jockey Club Racecourses, which owns and runs Aintree racecourse, said it would donate 10,000 tickets to the first day of next year’s Grand National meeting to NHS and social care workers across Merseyside. The fixture will be renamed Liverpool’s NHS Day.