Pints, Plaid Suits, and Wads of Cash: An American Explores Britain's Most Infamous Horse Race

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Pints, Plaid Suits, and Wads of Cash: An American Explores Britain's Most Infamous Horse Race

The big race—the actual Grand National, in which the greatest horses and jockeys in the UK will compete to take home about $777,000—is minutes away, and I still haven't figured out why everybody cares so much about it.
April 10, 2016, 2:45pm

This article originally appeared on VICE UK

I've watched a grown man in a blue-and-white checkered suit dive headfirst into a puddle of mud. I've been hugged and hi-fived, rained, spilled, and spat on. I've screamed "come on!" at a pack of galloping horses without knowing which one, exactly, I was rooting for. For better or worse, I've been to the Grand National. Also—hi, I'm American.

More than 10 million people tuned into Saturday's horse race on television and some 70,000 spent at least $37 on a ticket to watch it live in Liverpool. Heads of state, business moguls, bookies, bachelors, students, families, and "punters"—an English colloquialism with an apparently simple meaning I still haven't figured out—have turned up to the race each year, in ever-increasing numbers, since it was first held 177 years ago.

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I tried—I mean, really—to understand what all the fuss is about. But at the end of my day at the races, I left knowing only this: the Grand National is the Grand National, and because it is the Grand National, it is the "greatest race on Earth."

"Ladies and gentleman," a man bellows over the loudspeakers, "welcome to Aintree, home of the 2016 Crabbie's Grand National: the world's greatest horse race." He makes a few announcements, about parking and who should enter the race where, in a thick Scouse accent. I hear (and largely fail to understand) this accent intermittently as I walk the length of Aintree's outer wall towards a tent called the Steeplechase Enclosure.

There's trash everywhere. Broken bottles of wine and crushed beer cans and half-empty plastic cups of God-knows-what – Crabbie's, probably—have spilled out of dozens of overfilled bins. Throngs of men in suits of varying quality walk arm-in-arm with women in heels, elegant dresses, and hats on their way inside.

In the Steeplechase Enclosure, the cheapest "seating" available, I find hundreds of people standing on a treacherously steep, soggy hill. 24 bookies have set up stands in front of the stretch of the racecourse where, in a few hours, 39 horses and jockeys will blaze past the crowd.

I've done a bit of research as to who I should bet on, but The Sun's 20-page guide to the Grand National was unintelligible. Ucello Conti "could be worth a fiddle." Gilgamboa is "boa constricted." Kruzhlinin has "no kruz control." The Druid's Nephew, however "could do it." I put $28 on Druid's to win—and, with 14:1 odds, pray for a big payout.

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I mount the hill, and about halfway up, Harry Howard—a 21-year-old in pinstripes and tweed—stumbles toward me, lost. "I have no idea where my mates are," he says. "I've been lookin' for 'em for, like, ten minutes. Everyone looks the exact same."

Though a little drunk, Harry can't be faulted here—everyone is, in fact, pretty much wearing the same outfit. Except a group of barrel-chested dudes in what are easily the wildest suits I've ever laid my eyes on: offensive plaid, one depicting the world's largest game of Pac Man, another covered in sombrero-clad skulls. They're clearly peacocking, so I ask if the Grand National is a good place to pick up women.

Mike Cochran, the evident ringleader, directs the question to a man who only identifies himself as "Lou Pickles."

"Is this the place to pick up chicks?" Mike asks.

"Oh yeah, and drugs," Lou says. "You want some coke?"

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It's a little before 3PM—horses have been racing for about two hours—when rain and hail start "pissing it down," as the English say. About 1,000 people crowd into the Steeplechase Enclosure's single tent, before the wet lets up.

Back outside, I approach a man in a suit and a horse-tie standing alone with binoculars around his neck. Michael Greene has been to every Grand National held this decade, and hasn't missed the race on TV once in the past 50 years. Why, I ask him—I've been asking this all day, and have heard the word "atmosphere" invoked each time—why is the Grand National such a big deal to you?

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"The fascination of it," he says.

"What's fascinating about it?"

"Really fascinates me."

"But why is it fascinating?"

"Hmm," he says. "Fascinatin'."

This man has been watching the Grand National for more than 50 years, has traveled four hours and changed four trains to see the race in person, and—as far as I can tell—can't explain why.

The big race—the actual Grand National, in which the greatest horses and jockeys in the UK will sprint four miles and vault over 30 fences in an effort to take home about £550,000 [$777,000]—is minutes away, and I still haven't figured out why everybody seems to give such a big shit about it. Sure, there's money to be won—or, more likely, lost. But why are there 70,000 people here? Why aren't there 70,000 people at every other horse race in Britain?

The grand marshal waves his flag. The pack takes off, neck-and-neck all the way to the first "fence," a massive pile of what look like Christmas trees stacked as high as a horse's head. A few horses glide over gracefully. Two trip over the top of the fence and shoot their jockeys onto the ground. About five minutes in, after falling to the very back of the pack, Druid's Nephew drops out. Bummer.

With five fences to go and two more jockeys down, Rule The World sprints to the front of the pack on the final stretch, his jockey slamming the horse's rear end with a whip. Rule The World breaks away, and crosses the finish line. He wins the greatest horse race on Earth. The jockey, 19-year-old David Mullins, rips off his riding goggles, spits, and pats his horse affectionately on the neck. And now—even though there's one race still to go—the day is, essentially, over.

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About an hour later, people pour out of Aintree onto the streets of Liverpool. I ask bookie Chris Waldron why what just happened sets the Grand National apart from thousands of other races across the globe.

"It's one of the best days of the year," he says.

"Why?" I ask. "Why do people bet so much? Why is it so great?"

He hesitates for a moment, and shrugs.

"It's just the Grand National, innit?"

Outside, a severely inebriated man in a suit and tie teeters, alone, in the middle of the street as the Aintree crowd stumbles drunkenly past him. If this man can't explain to me why the Grand National rules, I decide, I will put an end to my day-long quest to figure it out.

"The day is amazing," he says, slurring his words. "Really really amazing. Because of the alcohol. I've lost a lot of money, but eeeeeeeh. Hundreds."

"How much? £500?"

He doesn't speak.

"£600? £700? £800?"

"Mmmmmmmnearly five," he says. "But it's worth it."

"Why?" I ask. "Why is it worth it?"

"Because," he says, "because, because—because it's the Grand National."

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