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Friday, April 3, 1998 Published at 11:31 GMT 12:31 UK


'The world's favourite steeplechase'
image: [ The BBC will cover the race with 33 cameras, some of which are buried in the fences ]
The BBC will cover the race with 33 cameras, some of which are buried in the fences

Three dates in the English racing calendar stand head and shoulders above the rest: Derby day, Gold Cup week and Grand National day.

The Cheltenham Gold Cup is considered the most prestigious event among the National Hunt community, and those on the flat look to the Epsom Derby in June. But it is the Grand National at Liverpool which has a special place in the hearts of ordinary Britons.

Grand National Day is the biggest betting day of the year with punters expected to gamble around £75m on the race.

Graham Sharpe, a spokesman for bookmakers William Hill, says: "This year only the World Cup compares as an event. We are expecting around £100m to be bet on that."

[ image: Bob Champion's 1981 victory was a fairytale]
Bob Champion's 1981 victory was a fairytale
The National generates twice as much as the Derby and far more than the Gold Cup, which is considered more of a racing enthusiasts' race.

Mr Sharpe explains: "The Grand National is an entirely different race to the Derby.

"You can follow the horses from one year to the next and many horses, such as Red Rum and Aldaniti, become public property.

"There is a bigger field than the Derby, it is a more open race, it's a handicap and of course there are the fences to get in the way."

[ image: Lord Gyllene won the National in 1997]
Lord Gyllene won the National in 1997
He insists the openness of the race does not mean bookies are the only winners and says: "There are a lot of each way bets and people bet on more than one horse.

"The 39 losers help us pay out the winner. We are simply redistributing wealth."

Saturday's winner will be hard pressed to beat the fairytale ending of the 1981 National when Bob Champion, recovering from cancer, rode Aldaniti to victory.

This year there has been a lot of ante post money for Rough Quest, winner of the 1996 National, and Suny Bay who came second last year.

Andrew Thornton, who won the Cheltenham Gold Cup on board Cool Dawn, will partner Superior Finish in Saturday's race.

[ image: Red Rum...a Grand National legend]
Red Rum...a Grand National legend
Around 60,000 people will be at Aintree on Saturday and around 300 million people worldwide are expected to watch the 10-minute drama courtesy of 33 BBC cameras linked to 10 miles of cabling.

The race commentator Sir Peter O'Sullevan, whose voice is almost synonymous with the race, retired last year and his distinctive patrician tones will be sadly missed.

The success of the Grand National is central to keeping the Aintree racecourse profitable.

The course's owners also benefit from the drinks firm Martell's £5m sponsorship and from the BBC's filming contract.

[ image: The distinctive voice of Sir Peter O'Sullevan will be missing this year]
The distinctive voice of Sir Peter O'Sullevan will be missing this year
Conference, banqueting and wedding facilities also contribute money, as does a nine-hole golf course in the middle of the course.

But an Aintree spokesman admitted they would have liked to have more than the three meetings a year permitted by the Jockey Club.

"We used to have 16 or 17 meetings but because of neglect they were given up and they are very difficult to get back," he said.

For full coverage of the Grand National tune in to Grandstand on BBC1 at 11.15 GMT (12.15 BST) on Saturday.

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