The Grandest Race: England’s Grand National

As a makeshift Cotswoldian, my horse racing sympathies should naturally lie with that region’s biggest race of the year, the Cheltenham Gold Cup. But I’ve always been partial to the mayhem that is the Grand National, and not just because I’m married to a Liverpudlian. In honor of the race at Aintree tomorrow, I’m sharing an excerpt from my memoir, Americashire, that helps explain my kinship with it. For context, it takes place immediately after I have been treated for the first symptoms of multiple sclerosis and celebrates long shots of all kinds.

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, roughly the equivalent of NPR’s Morning Edition. 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.My first outing following the treatment was to the wine bar to watch my favorite horse race of the year, The Grand National. Miles was working behind the bar, and his reliable reply to my inquiry of how he was—“marvelous now that you are here”—made me feel particularly good that day. He just happens to have a bookkeeper who is also a bookmaker, and so the small group that had assembled was able to call in some bets before the race started. (Between this and the wine, free-range eggs, and homemade marmalade on offer, this place was getting dangerously close to supplying all my needs in life.) I broke my cardinal rule of choosing my bets based on horse’s names I like, instead opting for two tips I read in the appropriately named “How to Spend It” supplement in the weekend Financial Times. This is how I came to have Snowy Morning and Butler’s Cabin to win.

At 4:20 PM, the race got underway in a manner befitting of the Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride of horse racing. There are no starting stalls in The Grand National. Instead the forty competing horses just rushed the starting line like a school of crazed fish. There were two false starts before the official let them get under way on the four-and-a-half-mile course.

The other distinctive feature of The Grand National is the fences, thirty of them to be exact. They look like giant hedgerows, taller than the horses, some with ditches and water features and names like The Chair and Becher’s Brook. Surviving 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 sight with horses lolling on their backs and jockeys in a protective, head-clutching fetal position as they try to avoid impact from other horses flying over the fences behind them. A handful of jockeyless horses still make 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 my horses won, but it was no small feat that all three finished. Only seventeen of the forty did.

The finish line was not the only milestone reached that afternoon. After three straight weeks of being patient and solemn and an emotional rock, D finally relaxed enough to start introducing some humor into my recent health scare. He joked with Miles about how it would go down in our small rural community if he left me now that I was a “disabled lady.” Miles replied it would depend on how fast and with whom I then took up, a scenario that, judging by D’s expression, he had failed to consider. Both Miles and Roddy had been a comfort since the whole MS scare had begun. Roddy had confided his own daughter had MS, somewhat demystifying the disease in the process, and Miles had sprung into action, tapping into his network to get advice on the best neurologists in the region. And now, right on cue, Miles was also ready with a bit of deadpan humor.

The joking was a relief to me. Ever since the possibility of MS surfaced, I had been concerned about the impact to D’s depression. But instead of sinking him into one, the experience had the opposite effect. He had been calm and devoted throughout. Although he was dealing with the same terrifying thoughts about the potential impact of this disease that I was, it was as if his subconscious wouldn’t allow him to melt down. We were part of a team, and two of us couldn’t be on the bench at the same time.

I was feeling great but cautious, having made the mistake of spending an hour that morning on WebMD reading up on MS after showing such exquisite restraint with Internet research earlier in my treatment. It was filled with depressing articles called things like “MS and Your Career” or “MS and Intimacy.” The thing that got me most about my prognosis was the uncertainty. Even if I was diagnosed, it didn’t offer much more insight into what happened next. The symptoms I could experience ranged from a little muscle spasticity or feeling like my foot is asleep to loss of bladder control, sudden paralysis, or blindness at intervals of anything from weeks to months to years between episodes. I must have been at that stage in confronting bad news where you try to find meaning in things, because the parallels to the Grand National seemed obvious. First there was the rapid-fire process of elimination that got me to my initial diagnosis: voice-box damage, stroke, 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 one hundred to one, while another favorite, Hear the Echo, collapsed and died in the run in. I took 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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