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Monday, 01 September 2014

National trumps all the great sporting moments

SO DO you know anyone who had any money on Grand National winner Mon Mome?

Mrs Hextol and I watched it romp home by a distance in Saturday’s big race, the beat of his flying hooves almost drowned out by the susurration of discarded betting slips.

Needless to say, my choice fell at the first fence, taking my modest investment with it.

However, interest was maintained as Mrs Hextol’s selection was there or thereabouts for much of the race, before getting the elbow on the run-in.

Grand National Day was always one of the twin television sporting highlights of the year, ranking right up there with the FA Cup Final.

It was often on the same day as the University Boat Race, which had about as much appeal as the test card, but we watched it anyway, in the hope that one or both the boats would sink.

These were also the days when motor cycle scrambling was a highlight of weekend viewing, with commentary by one Murray Walker.

Riders like Arthur Lampkin, Dave Bickers and Bill Boddice were household names, as were the ma-chines they rode through the mud.

In those days, Dot and Cotton were scramble bikes, not a chain-smoking harridan from the East End.

Cup final day was a sacred event, with the curtains drawn to blot out the sun when coverage started in mid-morning.

The first final I remember was the 1959 clash between Nottingham Forest and Luton Town, in which Elton John’s uncle Roy Dwight broke his leg.

Forest won 2-1, and one of the Forest players, Stuart Imlach, was a contestant on Beat the Clock on Sunday Night at the London Palladium on the Sunday night, bringing the cup with him.

Although Luton lost, one of their players, Syd Owen, was footballer of the year that year – and he looked older than my grandad, although I suppose he was only in his early 30s.

Come to think of it, footballers did look ancient in those days.

I always remember the peerless but craggy Tom Finney looking as though he was off to lag a hot water tank after inspiring a win for Preston North End.

My dad would set his annual poser of who had played in every cup final for the past 10 years, and we would have to pretend we didn’t know it was the band of the Grenadier Guards.

We would also lustily join in the community singing, led by the Man in the White Suit – not to be confused with the Man on the White Horse from the first Wembley final in 1923.

It was a great family occasion, but for concentrated excitement could not match Grand National Day.

The whole family would gather in front of the goggle box several hours before the big race.

My father was never really a racing man, preferring darts and dominoes to the turf, but he never missed the national.

He claimed he could remember the legendary Golden Miller winning the race in the 1930s, which made him an expert.

He had his own foolproof method of picking the winner, which he said never failed.

He would: “Just watch for the one that has a pony in the parade ring; it’s carrying less weight, so it’s bound to win!”

The excitement built unbearably as the honeyed tones of Peter O’Sullevan and Julian Wilson gave way to the screeching Hibernian hyperbole of Michael O’Hehir at Becher’s Brook.

The first race I remember was in 1959, when Oxo provided the gravy for his followers.

He was followed by national treasures like Merryman II and the gallant grey Nicolaus Silver, both winners in the early 1960s and my own personal favourite, Papageno’s Cottage, which always got a mention, but never won.

The winner that got the biggest cheer in our house was the 1965 winner Jay Trump, who was forgiven for being American-owned because he had a rude name.

Interestingly, there was no such sniggering at the 1970 winner Gay Trip, because in those days gay still meant happy and jolly.

We should have had a betting coup in 1969, when on the day of the big race my sister announced she was to marry her boyfriend, a man with a Cheshire accent as broad as the Macclesfield Canal, but for some reason was known as Jock.

The records show the winner of the 1969 Grand National was Highland Wedding – and we didn’t have a bean on it!

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