The Grand National has been cancelled. The Grand National is taking place on Saturday. In a world beset by fake news and internet-related falsehoods the public at large can rest assured both these statements are true.

The Grand National at Aintree, the world’s most famous race, which features 40 horses and 30 fences and unfading glory for the winner, was slated to take place on April 4 but – like all racing in Britain – has been written-off because of the health crisis.

This year the marvellous Tiger Roll would have been bidding for a third consecutive victory, something that was beyond even the legendary Red Rum – but history will have to wait.

The Virtual Grand National, the world’s most famous computer-generated race, which features 40 CGI horses and 30 CGI fences and no semblance of glory at all for the winner, will take place on April 4 and be shown ‘live’ on ITV1 at 5pm (BST).

Tiger Roll is the ante-post favourite and those caring, sharing bookmakers have announced they will donate all their profits from the race to NHS Charities Together.

(Photo by Paul ELLIS / AFP) (Photo by PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images)

Replacing the real thing?

But, far-fetched though it may seem and amid doom-mongering of the highest order, by advocating a virtual version of its greatest asset – creating it, publicising it and enacting it – racing could be contributing to its own decline. If everyone gets a kick out of the Virtual National, could it be deemed suitable to replace the real thing?

This is the fourth time the National has been computer-generated and the machine has a good track record of indicating who might prevail in the real version. In 2017, Cause Of Causes was first on the computer and runner-up in real life. The following year Tiger Roll won both events and, 12 months ago, Rathvinden won the virtual race and was third over the fences on the big day itself. Whatever algorithms are used for the simulation, they’re pretty shrewd.

Virtual racing isn’t a new thing for British racing fans. In the betting shops they call it cartoon racing and it fills the gaps in the schedule every morning and afternoon to keep punters punting, although you would have to be pretty dim to take it seriously and so far no-one has claimed to be that requisite sandwich short of a picnic.

The cartoon stuff is I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter when all you want is butter, a one-bar electric heater when all you want is a roaring coal fire, a photo of your gal when all you want is your gal.

It will pass muster when there’s nothing else, and there is sure to be much interest and excitement among action-starved race fans when ITV gives it the big show.

Yet there’s a little bell ringing in the back of my mind, a little red light blinking, a disembodied voice urgently intoning the word ALARM! ALARM!

The Grand National has since been cancelled (Photo by PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images)

An axe to grind

The Grand National is the one race that raises the hackles of everyone with an axe to grind about horse racing; it’s usually a remarkably uninformed axe but it still cuts.

In recent years the once intimidating contest has been modified, partly because of public perception.

The fences are now constructed of a more forgiving material, the drops after several fences – including notorious Becher’s Brook – have been levelled off, the distance of the race has been reduced slightly and the ground is always watered to ensure slower, safer conditions whatever the weather.

The modifications have worked in regard to safety of participants. The race is safer for horses and jockeys than ever and remains just as enthralling, at least to these eyes. But it’s not enough – it would never be enough – for certain vitriolic critics of the sport in general and this race in particular.

The people and organisations who would like to see the National and racing itself banned tend to be immune to the placatory activities of the racing authorities, seeing only what they want to see. A virtual Grand National is perfect for their agenda.

Perhaps they will argue if the public takes a liking to a virtual Grand National that produces such a realistic result, where is the need to run the real thing with its attendant perils? The rise of e-sports as a public spectacle might underpin this way of thinking.

And once the first drop of water leaks through the dyke . . . apres ca, le deluge? What at first seemed a bit of fun might one day be not so funny at all.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, almost every Grand National was billed as the last one, with the racecourse under threat from developers and demonstrators. The great race survived those dark days but we now face a blank year at Aintree – leaving aside the carnival chaos of the Race That Never Was in 1993 – for the first time since 1945.

Next year, which seems so far away given the circumstances in which we all find ourselves, the Grand National will return as large as life. Perhaps Tiger Roll will be back as well? Let joy be unconfined.

Returning too, of course, will be the virtual race, as well as the flashing red lights and the disembodied voice, quiet but insistent at the back of my mind, hard to ignore.

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