Tricia Ronane – formerly a model, manager of the Clash and wife of the bassist – has in mid-life become a steeplechaser. She backs a mature horse with attitude for the big race
I’ve never been much of a gambler. Whenever I’m at a meeting and find myself trotting towards the Tote, my late father’s adage that “a fool and his money are soon parted” rings in my ears.
The thrill of backing a winner, however, leaves a smile on everyone’s face. A little flutter certainly adds drama to the proceedings.
As you urge your horse home over the last few furlongs – whether from the side of the track or the sofa – you can’t help but be swept up in the tension. And once a year, most of us succumb to Grand National fever.
It is, after all, the ultimate day at the races, taking place at its Aintree home tomorrow, Saturday 5 April. It has been run almost every year since 1836, and is the most famous in the National Hunt (NH) calendar.
Like all NH racing, the National has its origins in steeplechasing: competing across countryside, from one church steeple to another, negotiating whatever natural obstacles (ditches, hedges, banks) were encountered along the way.
It offered all the fun of hunting without the fox, and today’s NH tracks are designed to replicate the country crossed during a hunt. The most famous are Cheltenham and Aintree, and each has its own distinct atmosphere.
The buzz of race day
The Cheltenham Festival is the biggest NH meeting in England, with the Gold Cup its highlight. It’s always a fun social outing, irrespective of one’s knowledge, and has an infectious buzz about it.
It’s inspiring to stand by the parade ring, where the horses are walked around before each race, and see up close the magnificent equine athletes at the pinnacle of their fitness.
Thoroughbreds are extraordinary creatures. Bred for speed, agility and stamina, they can sometimes appear surprisingly fragile and refined. So this is where to pick yourself a horse to back just by the look in his eye or the spring in his step.
You can watch it all on television from your box, of course. This year, I was lucky enough to be invited into the best one by my good friend and hunting buddy Hilary Butler on both St Patrick’s Thursday and Gold Cup Day.
But while I love the comfort and hospitality of a box, there is nothing like being at the side of the track: feeling the vibrations build up as the horses approach the fences, the momentary hush and brush as they graze the tops of the jumps’ faux hedges, the rhythm picking up as they land to the encouraging shouts of the crowd.
And boy, have they needed encouragement this year. The wet weather has had a big impact on the going, making life difficult for horses, jockeys and trainers.
At Cheltenham, in the absence of a Kauto Star or similar stand-out horse, it was all a bit random. Sprinter Sacre, having won the Champion Chase by a whopping 19 lengths in 2013, was sadly a no-show.
Previous champion Big Buck’s was favourite to win again but surprised the punters and finished well-beaten in fifth place. (He was retired immediately after.)
On the other hand, there are always surprises on Grand National Day. Last year, for example, the favourite finished 13th and the race was won by Auroras Encore, an outsider at 66/1.
Imagine how happy you’d have been with a tip for that! But, since picking a winner in the National is really anyone’s luck, it would have been no more reliable than none at all.
Far be it for me, then, to influence your choice. If pushed, I think Long Run could be worth an each-way bet. But arguably the most interesting runner is a 13-year-old called Tidal Bay.
Like human athletes, ‘chasers’ burn out young. Most stop at the age of ten, and are considered at their peak as eight or nine-year-olds. So, like high50-ers, Tidal Bay is certainly reaching mid-life.
However, he’s still capable of incredible highs. He’s always been a bit of a cheeky chap, and just when you think he’s reached the end of his career, his star is resurgent.
True, Tidal Bay is a notoriously difficult ride. He must be coaxed along or he will simply not go. Like some of my favourite people, he is both deeply tricky and enormously talented. But having run 42 races in his career and never fallen, he is exceptional.
Like many of us, he comes into his own late. But that only adds to the thrill of watching him. Just when doubt starts creeping in, he can pull it out of the bag and surge through the ranks to pip the field to the post.
With more than £800,000 in prize money to his credit – and despite his age, three wins already this season – I think he’s worth a punt. You may have different criteria (and whatever they are, be lucky) but I’ll be putting my fiver on Tidal Bay.
He’s a high50 horse.