The Grand National

The UK is in love with horse racing, so much so that there are betting tips every day on BBC Radio 4’s flagship morning news program, Today. Another regular segment on this show is Thought of the Day, in which a priest or rabbi or imam offers some spiritual insight in the form of a quickie sermon. That these two segments sit alongside each other without any trace of either irony or discomfort is perhaps the best illustration I can offer of the difference between America and the UK.

Yesterday was my favourite horse race of the year, The Grand National, which takes place at Aintree in Liverpool. We went into the wine bar to watch where M. was working behind the bar. He just happens to have a bookkeeper who is also a bookmaker—a dangerous combination if I’ve ever heard one—and so the small group that had assembled was able to call in some bets before the race started. (Between this and the wine, farmyard eggs, and homemade marmalade on offer, this place is getting dangerously close to supplying all my needs in life.)

I broke my cardinal rule of choosing my bets based on horse’s names that strike my fancy, instead opting for two tips I read in the appropriately named How to Spend It supplement in the Weekend FT. Thus it was that I had Snowy Morning and Butler’s Cabin to win. We also put £5 on Darkness to win after we realized that the wife of the man responsible for providing half our income owns him. It just seemed like the right thing to do.

At 4:20pm the race got underway in a manner fitting of the Mr Toad’s Wild Ride of horse racing. There are no starting stalls in The Grand National. Instead the forty competing horses simply rushed the starting line like a school or crazed fish. There were two false starts before the official let them get underway on the 4.5 mile course. The other distinctive feature of The Grand National is the fences, thirty of them to be exact. These are no ordinary fences. They look like giant hedgerows, taller than the horses, some with ditches and water features and names like The Chair and Becher’s Brook. The process of elimination—which is as much what winning this race is about as being fast—starts at the first jump when a handful of horses or their jockeys or both go down. This continues over every jump and it is a dramatic, sometimes wrenching site with horses lolling on their backs and jockeys in a protective, head clutching fetal position as they try to avoid impact from other horses still flying over the fences behind them. There are a handful of jockey-less horses still making their way around the course at any point in the race, oblivious to the fact that they’re disqualified and generally posing a hazard to everyone else. None of our horses won, but it was no small feat that all three finished. Only seventeen of the forty did.

Besides the finish line, another milestone was reached yesterday afternoon. Husband finally relaxed enough to start introducing some humor into my recent health scare, joking with M. about how it would go down in the community if he left me now that I am a “disabled lady.” M. wisely replied it would depend on how fast and with whom I then took up, a scenario I think husband had failed to consider. In any case, it was a good sign that husband was starting to feel a bit less stressed after the past three weeks of playing the full-time role of responsible grown-up and emotional rock.

I am feeling great but cautious, having made the mistake of spending an hour on WebMD this week reading up on MS after showing such exquisite restraint earlier in my treatment. It was filled with depressing articles called things like “MS and Your Career” or “MS and Intimacy.” But the thing that gets me most about my prognosis is the uncertainty. From here on out a diagnosis of MS is 50/50, but even if I am diagnosed it doesn’t offer much more insight into what happens next. The symptoms I could experience range from a little muscle spasicity or feeling like my foot is asleep to sudden paralysis or blindness at intervals of oh, anything from weeks to months to years between episodes. I couldn’t help seeing some parallels to the Grand National, first in the rapid fire process of elimination that got me to my initial diagnosis. Stroke, voicebox damage, and brain tumor knocked out in consecutive days like horses fallen at consecutive gates. And like MS, the odds mean little in The Grand National. The winner, Mon Mome, was 100-1, while another favourite, Hear the Echo, collapsed and died in the run in. I’ll take comfort in Butler’s Cabin, one of my bets, who finished in seventh but collapsed shortly after crossing the finish line. He was quickly revived by a dose of oxygen, springing to his feet to the relieved cheers of the crowd.

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