THE HALLOWED roll of honour at Aintree does not do justice to the 1997 Grand National that was ultimately won by Lord Gyllene in the colours of Stanley Clarke for trainer Steve Brookshaw and jockey Tony Dobbin, a long-time stalwart of Northern racing.
A race intended to be a celebration of the soon-to-retire Sir Peter O’Sullevan’s commentary career, the whole course had to be evacuated less than one hour before the race after two IRA bomb warnings as terrorists attempted to disrupt the general election.
In television scenes raw with emotion, a tearful Jenny Pitman – distraught at the horses being left alone in the stables – told the BBC’s Des Lynam “Don’t tell me these people love horses” shortly before Aintree supremo Charles Barnett went on TV to order everyone, including the broadcaster, to move.
After two controlled explosions, people of Liverpool opened their doors to thousands of stranded racegoers while dining rooms at the city’s Adelphi Hotel became makeshift bedrooms.
With the spontaneous generosity of Liverpudlians prompting Churchillian tabloid headlines such as “We’ll fight them on the Becher’s”, the race was staged 48 hours later on Monday teatime when 20,000 people, including the then premier John Major, watched Lord Gyllene win by 25 lengths.
For Hull-born Jamie Osborne, who grew up near Wetherby, this remains the National that got away – he believes that the delay, unavoidable in the circumstances, cost him victory on the Charlie Brooks-trained grey Suny Bay.
The former jockey, who is now a trainer, recalled: “When they took us out of the weighing room, we thought it was a fire drill and we all expected to be going back in shortly afterwards before going out to ride in the National, so there was no preparation for what happened.
“We didn’t know we wouldn’t be let back in for another 24 hours, so there we all were in our britches and boots heading into Liverpool. It made the night quite interesting!
“We all went to the Adelphi and the foyer was like a scene from the Blitz. They were putting up temporary dormitories and dining rooms and things like that. It wasn’t just the jockeys and trainers, a lot of the general public were there as well as they weren’t allowed to move their cars from the racecourse. There was a lot of people with nowhere to go.”
With every passing hour, the ground dried out to the detriment of Suny Bay who was then runner-up to Earth Summit in 1998. “My initial feeling after the race was run was one of disappointment. It was my first proper chance of winning the Grand National,” he said.
“He was a horse who really wanted soft ground to be seen at his best and unfortunately the ground dried up before the Monday. Whether the bomb scare cost me winning the Grand National, we’ll never know.”
As Osborne and so many others said, this was the one year when the staging of the racing mattered more than the final result.