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World's greatest race or over-hyped circus show?

Shakalakaboomboom ridden by Barry Geraghty clear The Chair. Photo: Anna Gowthorpe/PA Wire

World's greatest race or over-hyped circus show?

Whatever your view, there can be no doubting the real-life drama surrounding each and every renewal of the John Smith's Grand National.

Not in question is the fact it remains daunting.

And that's just for punters trying to figure out a race that attracts 40 runners doing battle over (now just short of) four and a half miles and negotiating the small matter of 30 still-fearsome fences.

There remains nothing like the famous old Aintree showpiece in the British sporting calendar.

It has an enduring quality - what else domestically comes close to grabbing so much of the nation's attention for a few hours? - but in the modern age can it really continue to enthral and overcome those who would campaign for its downfall, and whose voice is increasingly being heard?

From a connoisseur's point of view the great race has been whittled away in terms of its status as the ultimate test - the fences are certainly not what they were and in today's world of microscopic media scrutiny recent equine fatalities have not helped its image.

The RSPCA and other less subtle animal welfare groups have made their views, and influence, known, and will not be going away, quite the opposite in fact.

In that respect, this year's National is a huge one for all concerned.

It desperately needs an old-fashioned fairytale result, and for all participants to come back unscathed. The relief around racing would be palpable should that happen, for it can ill afford the headlines of the last couple of years. What it would give for a victory for Katie Walsh or Nina Carberry.

Walsh went close 12 months ago on Seabass for her father, Ted, and could easily be in mix again on the same horse, while Carberry has few peers in the saddle. Success for either would be a dream on so many levels.

Bookmakers will tell you that the adverse publicity has not affected turnover, and the once-a-year backers love it just as much as ever. Millions are wagered up and down the land, with the young and the old scouring names and colours for what sounds or looks like an appropriate bet.

The Aintree executive deserves huge credit for turning the three-day meeting into a meritorious festival in its own right, a real alternative to Cheltenham but with a much more relaxed feel.

From the first race on Thursday, everything builds nicely towards a tremendous climax in the world's greatest steeplechase, which is worth a whopping £975,000.

But forget the not insignificant winner's cheque, the real prize for the heroic warrior emerging victorious from this most gruelling of examinations is a place in the history books.

Purists can rightly argue that winning championship races like the Cheltenham Gold Cup or the Champion Hurdle represents the pinnacle of achievement in National Hunt racing.

But there's a big wide world out there, and nothing grabs the public's attention quite like a Grand National winner. Neither, sadly, does a National horror story, something which last year offered so much fodder to radio phone-ins and columnists for days afterwards.

Ask anyone to recall a famous racehorse and the name that will always crop up is Red Rum, whose three successes and two seconds in a five-year domination of the National in the 1970s earned him everlasting fame.

John Francome never won it, and neither did Peter Scudamore. Luck plays such an enormous part. The first winner in 1839 was called Lottery, which sort of says it all.

It's not just the famous fences, such as Becher's Brook and The Chair, that can bring about a horse and his partner's downfall. The sheer number of runners plays its part, too - Tony McCoy was tanking along on the second circuit on Clan Royal in 2005 only for a loose horse to run across him and dislodge the partnership.

It looked at the time that he might never get a better chance to end his National hoodoo but he finally the one race that was missing off his CV when Don't Push It recorded a famous success in 2010.

But McCoy, trainer Jonjo O'Neill and owner JP McManus were reminded of the pain the National can offer when 12 months ago Gold Cup winner Synchronised suffered a fatal injury after running loose following a fall at Becher's. According To Pete also lost his life.

It is the nature of the game that this year McCoy and McManus, so badly rocked by the serious injury suffered by JT McNamara at Cheltenham, could be back on top, with either Colbert Station of last year's runner-up Sunnyhillboy.

And what of Channel 4, who take over for the first time from the BBC? The much-decorated Clare Balding leads a new-look team, ably backed up by Nick Luck, and the people behind the production promise much, not least that issues surrounding the National will not be ducked.

All that is needed now is for someone to etch their name into sporting history. There will be twists and turns along the way and for just short of 10 minutes, the world will be watching. And racing will hold its breath. C'mon Katie.

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