Wednesday 22 November 2017

'It was like a scene from the Blitz' - It's 20 years since IRA bomb scare and one of racing's most infamous moments

Race-goers file past an information board as a bomb hoax forces the race to be cancelled (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)
Race-goers file past an information board as a bomb hoax forces the race to be cancelled (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

Keith Hamer

Twenty years ago Aintree was thrust into the focus of world attention when the 150th running of the Grand National was postponed after a bomb threat forced the evacuation of the course.

Less than an hour before the great race was due off on Saturday, April 5, 1997, one threat was made via telephone to Aintree University Hospital in Fazakerley, and three minutes later a second was made via telephone to the police control room in Bootle, both using recognised codewords of the IRA.

At least one device was warned to have been planted within the grounds of the course, resulting in two controlled explosions.

The race was rearranged for the Monday at 5.15pm with free admission to the public in an attempt to recreate a proper atmosphere. The people of Liverpool turned up in their droves to see the Steve Brookshaw-trained Lord Gyllene gallop to a 25-length victory in the spring sunshine and sporting the colours of Stan Clarke.

Jamie Osborne, who steered Suny Bay into second place, recalled how the unprecedented events developed.

"It's hard to believe it's 20 years ago - time flies," said the former jockey, who is now a trainer in Upper Lambourn.

"It was strange the way it unfolded. When they took us out of the weighing room, we thought it was a fire drill and we all expected to be going back in shortly afterwards before going out to ride in the National, so there was no preparation for what happened.

"We didn't know we wouldn't be let back in for another 24 hours, so there we all were in our britches and boots heading into Liverpool. It made the night quite interesting!

"We all went to the Adelphi (Hotel) in Liverpool and the foyer was like a scene from the Blitz. They were putting up temporary dormitories and dining rooms and things like that.

"It wasn't just the jockeys and trainers, a lot of the general public were there as well as they weren't allowed to move their cars from the racecourse.

Crowds file on to the Aintree course due to the IRA bomb scare which postponed The Grand National to April 7th at the Aintree Racecourse, Liverpool, England.. \ Mandatory Credit: Mike Cooper /Allsport
Crowds file on to the Aintree course due to the IRA bomb scare which postponed The Grand National to April 7th at the Aintree Racecourse, Liverpool, England.. \ Mandatory Credit: Mike Cooper /Allsport

"There was a lot of people with nowhere to go."

Osborne felt the two-day delay may have cost him victory as the ground had gone against Suny Bay in the meantime.

"My initial feeling after the race was run was one of disappointment. It was my first proper chance of winning the Grand National," he said.

"He was a horse who really wanted soft ground to be seen at his best and unfortunately the ground dried up between the Saturday and the Monday.

"Whether the bomb scare cost me winning the Grand National, we'll never know.

"I don't really think about it, to be honest. It's long gone."

Suny Bay's owner Andrew Cohen, concurred with his jockey that the going had gone against them in the 48 hours from Saturday to Monday.

"I find it difficult to believe it was that long ago I just wish the race had been run on the Saturday. On the Saturday it was good to soft and by the time it got to Monday it was good ground," he told Radio 5 Live.

"We needed the cut in the ground and that was basically the difference between us and Lord Gyllene.

"I remember going back in the car with Charlie Brooks (trainer) and Jamie and they were both disappointed at coming second and I said to them 'guys I've just come second in the biggest race in the world, I'm over the moon' - and that's the difference between professionals and amateurs.

"I was second twice. Keep trying, I keep having horses hoping I'll have another one like Suny Bay, but I think he was a once-in-a-lifetime horse. I was very lucky and I doubt another one will come along like him."

When Lord Gyllene died at the age of 28 in December, his jockey Tony Dobbin praised his mount for being so laid-back and taking the traumatic experience in his stride and jumping the fences like an old-hand.

"It was quite strange, surreal. It was testament to the horse. He was a very-laid back animal," he said.

"Obviously the whole rigmarole of going up and down from home twice that weekend didn't faze him at all. He took it in his stride.

"He just took to those fences at Aintree like you wouldn't believe. He was brilliant round there. He was a good jumper of the normal park fences, but round there he was different class. He loved it.

"After he won we thought he might be one of those horses that would keep going back, but he was injured a lot. He fractured his pelvis at home and just didn't quite come back.

"It was fantastic for my career. I'll always be thankful to the Clarke family for letting me ride him and be associated with him."

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