RACE-STARVED PUNTERS HAVE BIGGEST BET YET
This article appeared in The Times, 7 April 2001.
FOR one racing fan the crowning moment of Britain's biggest betting weekend, a flutter on the Grand National, is officially off limits. Chang Wei, the secretary-general of the Chinese Equestrian Association, will provide analysis for China's first live broadcast of the steeplechase, but he will be obeying his country's strict ban on gambling while British punters are expected to place a record £100 million on the race.
Mr Chang, who is on a fact-finding mission for his association, has vowed only to observe. Diccon White, an Aintree spokesman who is Mr Chang's host during his five-week stay, said that his guest would not be tempted by the bookies. "He has been staying with me for the past five weeks and we have visited many racecourses, but I haven't once seen him have a bet. I would be very surprised if he decides to start now."
In China, however, where more than 200 million people are expected to watch live coverage, the nation's penchant for illegal gambling will see many millions change hands. A recent swoop on one Chinese betting den uncovered one bookmaker who had receipts of nearly £9 million.
The deal between Central China Television, Aintree and Martell, the race sponsor, will swell Grand National viewing figures to 650 million.
According to David Hood, of William Hill, betting on the Grand National is expected to surpass last year's £80 million total with ease.
"With the loss of so much racing, and particularly the Cheltenham Festival, punters have been itching to get into Aintree," he said. "We expect this to be the first £100 million race."
As torrential rain swept Aintree yesterday, odds were shortening on those horses with the stamina to cope with the testing conditions. The going was officially described as "soft, heavy in places", with odds against Edmond, the Welsh Grand National winner, halving to 10-1.
Among the favourites is last year's winner, Papillon, which finally arrived from Ireland yesterday to the relief of race organisers - who feared that he would be banned from competing because of the foot-and-mouth epidemic - and thousands of punters who have backed the horse.
Accompanying Papillon, after Irish ministers lifted the travel ban, were the outsiders Hollybank Buck and Merry People. Under directives from Ireland's Department of Agriculture, all Irish horses competing must not return to Ireland until one month after the final case of foot-and-mouth has been identified. The ruling will prevent Papillon from contesting the Irish Grand National in nine days' time.
At Aintree runners and racegoers alike will be subjected to rigorous precautions to stop any risk of spreading the disease. A large police presence is also planned to prevent disruption by animal welfare activists. Demonstrators say that they plan to do nothing to spoil the race.
One protest group, Animal Aid, has decided to focus on punters betting on the race. To make a point against the number of horses killed in races, the organisation plans that supporters should picket every one of the country's 8,000 betting shops and stop office and pub sweepstakes.
Yvonne Taylor, campaign co-ordinator for Animal Aid, said:
"We are not being killjoys but we don't want people to bet on animals' lives."
The Kent-based group claims that 247 horses were "raced to death around the country" during the 1999-2000 National Hunt season.
The Outback Way died of spinal injuries at Aintree yesterday in what was described as a most unusual accident by David Muir, equine consultant for the RSPCA.