The Aintree Grand National was run on Saturday 10 April. According to the official website, it was the race the world stopped to watch. Five hundred million people in 140 countries were able to see it and far too much was gambled nationwide. Forgive me, if I am less than impressed.
For a spell, I was part of the team who worked to save, run, and promote the National. Originally coming in with the sponsors Seagram and Martell, I worked for Aintree as well. We were good at hype. In those days, the BBC showed the race and our peak viewing was 21 million in the UK. ITV had seven million in 2019. The race was shown in the US on NBC's Wide World of Sports
and live in Hong Kong at Sha Tin Racecourse. We never cracked Germany, Italy, France or Spain, and I suspect it is the same today.
What the watching world never saw were some of the joyous moments well away from the public gaze. In 1988, Philip Blacker was commissioned to create a life-size sculpture of three-time winner, Red Rum, to be unveiled by Princess Anne. We had the bright idea of bringing the actual horse to meet his doppelgänger for a publicity picture. Red Rum took one look and started to unsheathe a staggeringly large weapon. Gelded he might have been but the flesh was still all too willing. Not even the News of the World
could publish that image.
Ivan Straker, the UK boss of Seagram, who was dubbed the man who saved the National after convincing the Americans to put up the money needed to buy the course from a property developer, was a traditionalist of the best sort. So we all had to stay at Liverpool's Adelphi Hotel which had housed post-race celebrations for many a year. It was a magnificent building with beautifully panelled public rooms and a stunning marble pillared swimming pool. The bedrooms had doorways to allow easy movement of steamer trunks. On the downside, we discovered the pool, and particularly, the changing rooms, had a new and less salubrious reputation, while pulling on the string to illuminate your bathroom light often engendered a steady flow of water from sources unknown. So in subsequent years, we all had to move elsewhere. Which brings us to Southport and the great jewellery heist.
The chairman of Seagram was Edgar Bronfman, who was a billionaire when they were scarce. At the time, he was married to a glamorous Englishwoman, Georgiana. (I think she is the current spouse of Nigel Havers.) She came to our Southport hotel along with a clutch of the great and the good. She also packed in her suitcase an emerald necklace that had belonged to her husband's mother.
On the eve of the race, we were all sitting to dinner in the hotel ballroom when to universal delight Red Rum (the real one) was led in, along with a photographer. Celebs lined up for a happy snap in those pre-selfie days. As the great horse departed, the saviour of the National, Ivan Straker, surged up to my table of 10. 'Disaster David. The whole top floor of the hotel has been robbed,' he boomed. 'Not a word to the press.' I watched thoughtfully as my nine press guests headed for the upper floors.
You could say there was a silver lining eventually. Though we never found out who had hired Red Rum and the photographer never surfaced, the emeralds and most of the loot turned up in Liverpool being hawked around in true Scouse optimism. Which brings me to Gregory Peck and the Scouse taxi covered in Disney characters.
The year 1997 started promisingly for the National but did not end well. Gregory, and thousands more, came to see the 150th anniversary of the great race. Reg Green, a local Grand National historian and at that time unbeloved of the race authorities (later he was embraced as the official historian) cast some doubt on the arithmetic that engendered the celebration which quietly moved from being the 150th running to the anniversary.
All that faded into insignificance when the Provisional IRA sent a coded bomb warning and we had to exit the racecourse while horses were in the parade ring. Prowling the road outside I found Gregory, and his wife, sheltering in a mini bus. I also spotted a white taxicab, covered with Disney characters. Having thrust as many fivers as I could find into her hand, I sent one of my colleagues off to the airport in the taxi, with Mr and Mrs Peck. En route, the taxi driver stopped, turned round and asked if Gregory was indeed Gregory. He then pushed a scrap of paper through his hatch, plus a pencil, and sought an autograph. Smoothly, Gregory slipped it back and told the driver to write down his name and address. Which is why a Scouse taxi-driver has a framed autographed souvenir picture of the late Gregory Peck.
Another souvenir was more complicated. One year, it was decided to invite back all the jockeys who had ridden a National winner. They were feted, entertained, and presented with an inscribed souvenir. It all went well until the following week when a gentleman drunkenly tried to sell his little trophy in his local pub. An astute journalist checked him out and discovered that as well as being disinterested in his trophy, he had never sat on a horse let alone ridden in the world's greatest steeplechase. We had invited the wrong man.
After a tiring Grand National weekend, my wife and I used to spend the Sunday afternoon visiting the sights of Liverpool. One year, we chose the somewhat forbidding Protestant Cathedral. Our tour was interrupted by an announcement that a parked car was being broken into. The registration number was our's. In the car park, we found a smashed rear window and a line of documents leading to my abandoned briefcase. The robbers had found nothing of value and vanished. They had also left, untouched on the back seat, the magnificent Grand National winner's trophy which was on its way to a jewellers for engraving. Art, one suspects, did not convert into easy cash in a Scouse burglar's mind.
One final throwaway. My wife, who has never forgiven me for leaving her at home in Gregory Peck's year, was walking though Hemel Hempstead street market when she spotted a box, labelled 'Grand National 1956'. She bought it for a few shillings. It contained a cine film of the famous race when the Queen Mother's Devon Loch stumbled to the ground in the final straight with celebratory hats coming off for the Royal victory. Thriller writer Dick Francis was the unfortunate jockey. Now the first TV showing of the National was in 1960 so in the pre-race highlights this famous race did not feature. I lent the film to a pal at BBC Grandstand
who did the necessary transfers into their videotape archives. If you saw it on TV when the world stopped to watch, thank my missus.
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