The Grand National, in April, is dubbed the ‘world’s most famous horse race’ by the media. I had the fortune of attending a lunch to announce the weights for this great old handicap steeplechase – an occasion that could perhaps be dubbed ‘the world’s most famous horse racing lunch’.
At each turn of my head another of the great and good of the equine community appeared. As well as the National Hunt royalty strutting their stuff, the star of the show was the venue. The Jockey Club hosted the event at the spellbinding Sky garden, on the top of the ‘Walkie Talkie’ building in the heart of the city of London.
Crabbies, in their final year of sponsorship, were making their presence felt. A brace of life sized model horses, smothered in Crabbies’ illustrious neon tartan, greeted me at the ground floor entrance. After an ear popping ride in an impossibly sleek lift, I was deposited onto the 35th floor – a press pack shoved into my hand and off I went in the search of a glass.
In the same way a politico would knowingly observe and make note of the guests in Westminster, I was somewhat overcome by the glut of personal heroes; trainers, media, and jockeys. The media, ever the peacocks, were easy to spot. However, the jockeys without the mud splattered visages and the trainers sans chapeaux did need double takes at times.
The sky garden is a vast conservatory atop an illogically shaped modern building. On a day like last Tuesday it has an elegantly ecclesiastical feel to it; the clear unfiltered sky sharpened by the high lunchtime sun created a spectacular view of London and made me feel as if I was perched on a glorious silver cloud.
The drinks reception was further into the clouds, up a large flight of stairs that Led Zeppelin would approve of, and full of red faced raconteurs and assiduous waiters.
An impossibly long champagne flute became my ally as I strode suspiciously about the drinks reception, periodically snaffling on a petite lobster roll or a tuna tartar. Despite not knowing many attendees I nattered to anyone in my vicinity about our common ground, horses, all the while observing the great trainers in a foreign climate – with the foliage in this unique garden I did feel like a horse racing David Attenborough seeking out the lesser spotted Oliver Sherwood.
The gong sounded for lunch and more than a hundred large horse racing folk attempted to walk down a two wide staircase, all the while slurping on champers and talking loudly to their neighbours. The cue ground to a halt because of the seating plan placed at the bottom of the stairs. I looked over London and watched the grey suited workers walk like trails of ants.
Nigel Twiston-Davis hung from an indoor tree, Paul Nichols spoke with gravitas to a nearby camera, and a puce Alan Brazil long-armed his champers. Even though he was not hosting the event, the ever splendid Nicky Henderson greeted guests like a father of the bride at a wedding. Gliding up the stairs Henderson’s smile beamed and he wished all comers a “good day” – imploring us to “enjoy enjoy”. The chap was clearly in his element.
Rather like the preamble before a wedding breakfast, I walked around the venue desperately trying to find my seat. However this shuffle had me gracefully moving out of the way of Clare Balding and almost into an oncoming of AP McCoy! I dodged a slight Warren Greatrex and spied my table.
Three Journalists, a pair of PR girls, an owner, an author, and a publisher was not the beginning of a joke but the occupations of my fellow dinners. I had the luck to sit next to the marvelous John Pinfold, author of ‘Aintree: The History of the Racecourse.’ Aside from being excellent company, John was charitable enough to give this racing fan a free copy, which I have enjoyed greatly.
A main course of braised Ox cheeks followed by apple crumble was wolfed down, with liberal helpings of claret served by generous waiters – in fact if any of the jockeys at the national show this much zeal they will be half way there!
Whilst we lunched, Nick Luck hosted the proceedings from a standing position in a raised pulpit behind an austere lectern in a an effulgent suit. He interviewed gluts of steeplechasing deities and beelzibub-like bookmakers. The ethereal scene was completed when we were serenaded by the ‘sporting soprano’ Laura Wright, dressed all in white and warbling Jerusalem with soft winter rays of sun haloing her.
Tales of racing days were on the, purple tinted, lips of the congregation and laughter rocketed through the gardens. A lovely lunchtime fog of red wine warmed my cheeks and home began to call…a final delight for this equine man was to share a lift with the diminutive icon of training and riding Jonjo O’Neill.
Despite, almost five hours of objective discussion, I am still none the wiser as to who will win the race – my money will most probably be bestowed upon the returning champion Many Clouds. However, my mind always returns to the fact that the winner of the first Grand National was rather aptly named Lottery.