Walk on the wild side

Davy Russell is unimpressed with the shoes.

“You can’t do it in those,” he said, looking at the Doc Martens. “You will be destroyed at the bend in the canal.”

It’s 4:20 p.m. Thursday afternoon in Aintree and Russell takes us for a walk around the Grand National course.

He’s been riding the famous fences for over 20 years and is a two-time National winner, on Tiger Roll in 2018 and 2019. This year he’s riding Run Wild Fred.

The runners have just returned from chasing the Foxhunters when he ducks under the railing and heads for the track.

“This is the start,” he says, pointing to where the tape goes up.

“You have very little time to organize yourself. People say, “Sure, you’ve got four miles to do it,” but the start is as important as the finish.

“If you just haven’t put yourself in a pozzy position, you could be fighting a losing battle.”

The sun is out after a wet morning as Russell crosses Melling Road.

This is part of the long cavalry charge towards the first fence of the Grand National.

“You’re probably going the fastest you’ll go in the race at this point,” he says. “It’s quite manic.

“If your horse has gone a little too far ahead of you, you go down to first. It’s like when you come down a hill when you’re young and your legs go faster than your body.

“And you don’t control what you actually do.

“As you watch and your older brother is there and he’s running at the same speed and it’s very comfortable for him.”

The ground cut after the Foxhunters and the divots are like arrows on an airport conveyor belt leading to the first fence.

He pulls one out to show the black earth. 30 horses had just charged onto that turf minutes earlier, using less than half the available land.

Teams of staff are on the course marching in packs, repairing damage, pushing back hoof marks on foot in preparation for the next two days.

The first & 17th

“It’s one of the smaller ones,” says Russell. “But horses can jump it with speed.

“You often see the falls at the start, they are slippery falls.”

Has he already fallen to the first?

“No, but there’s always this year…” he said, smiling.

A tractor hums along the side of the track. Cameramen look down from television towers. Russell fixes the baseball cap on his head.

Forward for the second and the third, who will be the 18th and 19th on the second circuit.

The third and the 19

“It’s a good old yellow now,” he said. “First open ditch of the race.

“You are always traveling at 30 miles an hour. There are going to be a lot of horses around you. The way the National went (with the changes to the fences), there are plenty of horses around you all the way now.

“You will be after spotting a horse that got stuck early or was a little careless and you’ll try to avoid it.”

The fourth and the 20

A large section of spruce is missing where one of the Foxhunters runners misjudged his jump, leaving the EasyFix fence’s plastic birch exposed.

Russell reads divots like a crime scene investigator.

“See how the horse has brought the divots closer to the fence. It’s the horse kicking its front legs because it sees the fence,” he says.

“He puts the power of his hind legs to take off.”

Russell bends down and picks up a misplaced horseshoe covered in orange paint from the plank at the base of the fence.

“It’s a posterior iron. He stood on the board and he walked out,” he said.

Russell takes a walk on the Grand National course

“Before switching to EasyFix, it was literally wooden posts. So when you hit him, there was no luck. When you hit him, you were falling.

“Now you can hit it and you can survive it. But that does you no favors. You might survive it and stop before the next one.

Water is visible in the mud, but so far the boots are holding up as we move forward.

“There’s your daddy over there,” Russell said, pointing to the next fence.

The sixth & 22nd – Ruisseau de Becher

A hedge on the left side of the track is the first indicator for jockeys and horses that they are approaching the course’s most famous fence.

It is named after Martin Becher who crashed in the first official Grand National in 1839 and sheltered in the stream under the fence to avoid being bruised by the rest of the field.

The fearsome reputation is based on a strong drop on the other side, although it has been changed several times.

“Get up here and you will see the fall,” says Russell. “It’s not what it used to be, to be fair. Before, it was a monster.

“But you know what, you notice it on the next one. The horse awaits the fall. And it’s not there.

“It’s like climbing a flight of stairs and climbing a step too soon.”

The seventh & 23 – Foinavon

Named after the 1967 Grand National winner who enjoyed utter chaos here on the second circuit when half the field came to a standstill after two loose horses caused a pile-up.

“When the horses behind saw the horses in front lock up, it was like an accordion effect,” he says.

“Then the next thing there’s just nowhere to go.”

“There is no power steering on a horse. It’s like turning one of those really old tractors with both hands on the wheel.

The divots show the way to the next fence, first in a straight line, then with a sharp turn to the left, which only means one thing.

The eighth & the 24 – Canal tour

“It’s the bend in the canal. You’re heading straight for that Randox sign, but you’re not. That’s where you want to go,” he says, pointing to the corner.

“You definitely don’t want to be outside here. And you don’t want a good jumping horse inside of you.

We are now close to the furthest point of the course, along the back straight. A housing estate is visible over the wall and locals often stand there to watch the Grand National.

Back in the parade ring, runners and runners prepare for race six, but the only noise here is that of a helicopter overhead.

The 9 & 25 – Valentine’s Creek

Russell stands at the back of the fence. The water goes through the stream.

“I imagine that stream was here much further,” he said, pointing to the narrow but deep opening. “I still wouldn’t like to end up in this.

“That’s where half the horses might decide it’s not for them on the second circuit.

“This is when you may need to make a change if things don’t go as planned.

“Or you could kick yourself for not doing it afterwards. Or you can stay where you are and a horse falls in front of where you were going.

“These are the decisions you make.

“Look at Any Second Now and Minella Times during the race last year. One was embarrassed, the other was not and that was probably the difference between winning and losing the National.

We are now heading back to the straight line.

On the second circuit, it will be the commercial part of things, but on the first, there remains the imposing chair to negotiate.

The 15 – The chair

“You only do the chair once, thank God. It’s a nice fence, but it’s fucking big,” he says.

The chair is the highest jump on the course at 5ft 2in with a 5ft ditch in front and an elevated landing side.

“The thing with the Grand National is that when you crash, you have a good crash. You feel it. You come down from a greater height,” he says.

“I got a terrible slap in the ground here from Takagi (2004).

“It’s always nice to have good eyesight at The Chair. You want to see it, your horse needs to see it. He has to report to The Chair. You don’t want to go down there and have to start changing your stride.

16 – Water jump

Another that has only been faced once on the first circuit, the Water Jump is just in front of the main stands.

“Tiger Roll barely made it past the Water Jump (in 2018),” he says.

“It’s been long enough at that. It landed a little short on the back of it. But in the air, he spotted the water and simply reached out.

The elbow

Behind us, a few hundred yards further, is the Elbow, where runners and runners switch to the regular circuit for the final mad dash to the line.

In 2018, Russell sent Tiger Roll home after the last and was five points ahead as he went past the elbow. But halfway through the break-in, Tiger started to tread water.

“Tiger had stopped, he just didn’t want to go. He was looking towards the bleachers, ”explains Russell.

Davy Russell

“The little beat I made on his back kept him going.

“I just knew I wasn’t going fast enough. It’s time for the kitchen sink. I knew there was something coming.

There was. Pleasant Company came like a train, but Tiger Roll and Russell managed to hang on by a hair in the final strides.

“A feeling unlike anything else. Relief,” he says.

The victory changed their lives and they did it again the following year for good measure. There is no Tiger this year, but Russell is back in search of his third victory in the race.

“There’s red rum,” he said, pointing to the former champion’s grave near the finishing post.

Russell will do the national course for real on Run Wild Fred in this year’s race and is hoping for a great performance if the horse can handle the occasion.

“He can be a bit edgy, gassy at first. It’s not ideal for this race,” he said.

“But if he manages the start, he could be fine. It’s the National, you never know what’s going to happen.

We are back where we started. At least we haven’t lost a shoe.

Having the right boots definitely helps.

Having the right horse and the right jockey is what really matters.

Aren’t we doing the second circuit, Davy?

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