Clark on Sport

 
 

Unfortunately, Michael Clark did not back this year’s Grand National winner at 100/1. However, an all-Irish Heineken Cup semi-final and an exciting conclusion to this season’s Premier League is ample compensation…

ON THE FIRST SATURDAY of every April, 40 men place their faith in 40 horses (and vice versa). As the horses parade before the race, one can see the unease and trepidation etched on the jockeys’ faces. Centuries ago, 40 galloping horses could decimate a small army yet 30 fences can achieve what archers, pikemen and musketeers so often failed to do. Almost every year, less than half of the entrants successfully run the gauntlet.

Racing experts will assure me that the Cheltenham Gold Cup is racing’s greatest prize, just as churchmen will argue that Easter is the most important Christian festival. The Grand National is the Christmas of races: exciting, accessible to all and generally hectic. To those who say it’s a lottery, I argue that any ‘sport’ that involves a diminutive man being transported on a relatively unintelligent beast involves a lot of luck.

Mon Mome’s victory was far less dramatic than the last 100/1 victory in 1967. Foinavon won after a disastrous pile-up at the lowly 23rd fence as rogue loose horses caused mayhem, giving Micheál O’Hehir his chance to enter the annals of commentating as he listed the falling horses with astounding speed and accuracy. The lucky Foinavon was so far behind that the jockey managed to chart a safe course through the carnage and sailed to a slow and bizarre victory by 15 lengths.

Last year I was exposed to the serious side to National Hunt racing as the horse I bet on died after a serious fall. Horses are vulnerable to fatal injury every time they leap over fences. This risk is doubtless unacceptable to many but in a civilisation that thrives on the domestication, rearing and killing of every conceivable type of animal, a few deaths represent a very small price when one considers the terrible majesty of the Grand National.

Indeed, there are those who would decry the emasculation of the National fences over the last few years. Now many of the Aintree fences appear to be little more dangerous than the less than impressive obstacles at Leopardstown. Until Mon Mome pulled off an improbable victory last week, it appeared that the unpredictability of the National had been sacrificed on the altar of safety.

In 2008, Comply or Die went off as joint favourite and romped to victory. However, as if to confound the pundits, Mon Mome’s victory this year is a triumph for those choosing at random or backing a horse based on the quality of its name.

Nevertheless, the Grand National rightfully retains its position as the racing world’s most famous and terrifying challenge. It transcends the often cliquish nature of the racing business and is the only race that matters for millions around the world. Tony McCoy is perhaps the greatest jockey in National Hunt racing history yet unfortunately for Tony, he has failed to ever win the only race that the uninitiated and the great unwashed have ever heard of. To compound McCoy’s anguish, it must be particularly galling that this year’s winning jockey, Liam Treadwell, was making making his National debut in his first year in jump racing.

We don’t have coliseums and hippodromes in this enlightened age. The Grand National quintessentially represents man’s desire for thrills and spills as well as glory and a small dose of destruction. This desire that has persisted for millennia and will always survive. Next year, I won’t bet on any horse with odds lower than 100/1.

Who the hell is Kiko Macheda? A young man so obscure that even the most ardent of Manchester United fans would have struggled to recognise him at 5:20 last Sunday week. Two substitute appearances and two vital match-winning goals later, some pundits are calling for him to start Wednesday’s Champions League quarter-final. It is unlikely that Macheda will sustain this astounding form for the rest of his career but one thing’s for certain; he has prevented a United league collapse that threatened to completely upend Alex Ferguson’s best-laid plans.

Last February, I predicted a tight finish to the Premiership race. The following Saturday, Liverpool contrived to lose to lowly Middlesbrough, thereby making me look stupid. (Not for the first time!) Yet in the intervening weeks, United’s imperious progress in every competition faded and now talk of quintuples has been shelved for the time being.

Liverpool’s outlandish demolition of Vidic et al at Old Trafford burst the United bubble and now teams dare to dream of scoring goals against the Manchester outfit. The United defence, lionised as akin to the impregnable Spartan phalanx at Thermopylae just a month ago, now looks more like a shell-shocked gaggle of WW1 conscripts.

The Red Devils still hold a substantial edge with seven games to go, thanks to Macheda’s unlikely heroics. Potential banana skins still abound. They must face frenzied relegation-fearing teams in the shape of Portsmouth, Middlesbrough and Hull City. Manchester City are likely to give them a keenly-contested derby clash while Tottenham and Wigan can be effective on their day. Arsenal will provide perhaps the sternest opposition on the second-last day of the season.

The Gunners are now serving in the unfamiliar role as kingmakers for the rest of the season as they still have to play all three of the league leaders during the run-in. I am genuinely torn for next week’s clash against Liverpool; the ABU monster in me wants Arsenal to take a dive to sustain the challenge of Rafa Benitez’ men. The painful memories of last season’s Champions League quarter-final still fester however and I’m sure once they take the field, Wenger’s charges will give no quarter as they attempt to invoke the spirit of 26th May 1989.

All the top four have impressed this season and I feel that they all deserve a trophy for their collective efforts. Chelsea’s immense performance in Anfield last week might well be the preface to Champions League success. Liverpool, meanwhile, have displayed impressive fortitude and would be worthy Premier League winners. That leaves Arsenal the FA Cup, a fourth such honour this decade. Let’s hope United have to content themselves with the World Club Championship and the Carling Cup. Never fear United fans, now that I’ve predicted failure, you can rest assured that Alex Ferguson will be celebrating the quintuple come the end of May.

Clark on Sport will be back for one last time in a fortnight. The tantalising prospect of a Munster-Leinster semi-final will dominate my last column. Munster deserve to be overwhelming favourites and no self-respecting pundit could say otherwise. Nevertheless this Leinster supporter can dare to utter the immortal words of Kevin Keegan: “I’d luv it if we beat them!”

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