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The Grand National? It's probably just a phase but don't bet on it . . .

THE Grand National.

Man at work: the way it used to be, minus the babbling incompetents . . .
Man at work: the way it used to be, minus the babbling incompetents . . .

Words to strike terror in the clogged, faltering heart of your correspondent. The Grand National. The doleful, lingering consequences of these words are on a par with:

"I know it's Scotland v England in the World Cup final but my mother is entitled to come over once a week."

"I just had a wee look under the bonnet, Mr MacDonald, and well it is much more than just the gear box . . . "

"It happens to every man. And, honestly, it does not matter."

"You only have a month to live. And it's February."

The Grand National. It has been awful news for me throughout my life.

The first period of Grand National angst occurred when I was but a child. The truth is I was gambling before I went to school. Admittedly, being resident in first Possil and then Busby, there was no imperative to go to school before the age of 21. But as a street urchin I stood outside the bookies opposite the Cartvale and asked the Big Men to put on my bets. Strangely, I did not have to ask them to collect my winnings.

This predilection for betting was a personal affliction not shared among the rest of the siblings. And I wish I could say the same for measles, chicken pox, scarlet fever and bubonic plague (which incidentally leaves a nasty mark and the compulsory bell can lead to tinnitus).

Thus on Grand National day the family scribbled out lines and I was deputed to advise them on what constituted each-way and how much they had to pay. Every soddin' year. Their selections were not only, er, eccentric but comprehensive. I marched over the Cart carrying a wad of paper so large it was mistaken for the transcripts of the Nuremberg trials, though the bets were considerably more grisly. Inevitably, I was in the queue at 5pm to collect my maw's 2/6 that had caused her to scream so loud that I thought she had been told one of the weans had been diagnosed with rickets. Again.

The Grand National. It had a second phase. This was when I was a serious gambler. That is, I lost money sombrely. Grand National day saw my natural habitat invaded by hordes of babbling incompetents who just did not have a clue what they were doing. It was like the sports desk news conference except that it lasted all soddin' day. And the sports desk news conference just seems to last all day.

The level of intrusion was mind-splitting. It was like being a Trappist monk and suddenly being asked to be a roadie for Metallica.

The concerted bedlam also came towards one like a typhoon of tedium. It swept one away on a relentless blast about how to put down "each way" (answer: take a writing implement and scrawl each way) and how to physically place a bet (answer: physically place the bet).

This congealed mass of betting innocents preparing for an event also provided a barrier to one placing a bet on a race that was to take place in just under a minute. Curiously, they had a primal, collective intelligence that conspired to allow one to place a losing bet but formed an impregnable guard when one was clutching a line that subsequently would have paid out more cash than a rollover week in the Eurolottery coupled in a double with a 33-1 winner in the last at Wincanton.

The Grand National. It had a third phase. This is when I realised that betting was as productive and as joyous as putting one's hand into the microwave and hitting defrost. And I stopped. Though I am occasionally to be found lingering beside the microwave with an outstretched mitt.

But the gambling was over and the big day at Aintree only then had a professional interest as one had to come up with a feature on rider/trainer/horse that was the story of the day. To be fair, the horse did regularly provide better quotes than your average footballer. People then asked you who was going to win. You told them and the horse normally bolted in, carrying up to 12 stone but crucially not burdened with one's dosh.

The Grand National. The David Beckham of horse races, the X Factor of entertainment in that it is both massively over-valued and blown up to absurd levels. So here is the National question?

What is a handicap for moderate to good horses over 30 fences and four miles to the considerable detriment of the sanity of gambler and non-gambler alike? The Grand National.

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Sport

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