This Saturday sees the last Grand National broadcast on the BBC for a while (from next year it moves to Channel 4), and I count myself unbelievably fortunate to have been one of the few presenters of the world’s greatest race.
It has been a part of my life since I was small – my uncle, Toby Balding, trained the winner in 1969 (Highland Wedding) and 1989 (Little Polveir) and had runners almost every year.
My brother and I would get so excited that my mother diagnosed “Grand National fever”, a condition that required the sufferer to sit glued to Grandstand from start to finish.
1 Red Rum, 1977
The ultimate Aintree specialist, he ran in the race five times, winning three times and finishing second twice. He was a better horse at Liverpool than anywhere else, was nimble and clever enough to cope with the fences and had the stamina to last the four-and-a-half miles.
He made up 30 lengths to catch the gallant front-running Crisp in 1973, carried a back-breaking 12 stone to victory in 1974 and then, in 1977, when he was considered past it at 12 years old, the roar of the crowd seemed to spur Red Rum on to that final and remarkable victory.
2 Aldaniti, 1981
I was ten in 1981 and remember my mother telling me about her friend Bob Champion, who had cancer but had had treatment and recovered his fitness in time to ride in the Grand National.
His horse, Aldaniti, had also had his problems with serious injury, but Bob was determined that they should both give it their best shot. The two of them combined for a fairy-tale win, subsequently made into the 1984 film Champions.
3 Esha Ness, 1993
Dramatic catastrophes have been as much part of the fabric of the Grand National as emotional victories. The 1993 race was an extraordinary event. From the tape getting stuck round Richard Dunwoody’s neck to the starter’s flag not unfurling and the recall man not knowing what to do, it was a disaster.
The jockeys, fuelled by adrenaline, continued for a circuit, when most pulled up – but a few continued. The defining image was the tearful face of John White
when he was told that although he crossed the line first on Esha Ness, he hadn’t won. The race was declared void.
4 Lord Gyllene, 1997
I was working for Radio 5 Live high in the grandstand when I heard the alarm sounding and saw people streaming out towards the centre of the course. The racecourse and Liverpool police had been given a coded warning that a bomb had been planted – not true, as it turned out.
It was incredibly confusing, and impossible to let anyone know where you were because the mobile phone signal was blocked. The course was evacuated and the race postponed. I ended up in the Working Men’s Social Club with trainer Charlie Brooks and jockey Jamie Osborne.
We, and a determined crowd, all reconvened two days later on the Monday to watch and report on the impressive win of Lord Gyllene. The TV audience was a record 15.1m and it marked Sir Peter O’Sullevan’s final Grand National commentary.
5 Don’t Push It, 2010
I have been working on the Grand National for BBC radio and television since 1994, the same year that AP McCoy arrived as a conditional jockey in the UK. He soon dominated the British jumping scene, but the one race that eluded him was the most famous steeplechase of the lot.
He finally did it, after 15 years of trying, on Don’t Push It in 2010 and it brought him close to tears. “Finally,” he said, “I may have done something that my little girl Eve can be proud of.”
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 10 April 2012.
BBC1/BBC1 HD carries coverage of The Grand National from 1pm today. BBC Radio 5 Live coverage begins at 4pm.