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A-Z of the Grand National By John Cottrell & Marcus Armytage

Release date: 16th March, 2008
Publisher: Highdown Publishing

List Price: £16.99
Our Price: £11.21
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A-Z of the Grand National
By John Cottrell & Marcus Armytage
Highdown Publishing price: £11.21, saving 34% on rrp

We may still be a month away from the Grand National, but lovers of facts, figures and general ephemera who buy this official guide to the world's most famous horse race will probably need all of that time just to reach the letter 'N' in what is a wonderfully engaging book.

At almost 600 pages long, it's not the type of tome anyone would want to sit down and read in one sitting. Indeed, a quick whiz through could result in the reader missing much of the history, anecdotes and amusing tales which Messrs Cottrell and Armitage have assembled.

It's most attractive feature is not the array of pub quiz-style information jammed inside, although there's enough here to satisfy any sporting Mastermind, but the in-depth descriptions accompanying the entries. Essentially a reference book, it opens with an entry dealing with the number of times the race has been abandoned. Many racing enthusiasts will know that the National was suspended during the Second World War and on three occasions during the Great War it was moved to Gatwick, but it has only ever been completely abandoned once, in 1993, following two false starts.

That might be enough for most authors before they move on to their next entry, but Cottrell and Armytage have created something different, for their 'Abandoned' entry runs to 1,600 words.

They chronicle the events of 5th April 1997 when the race was postponed for 49 hours following a bomb scare and 60,000 racegoers had nowhere to stay until a typically British 'Dunkirk spirit' took root not only at the course but across Merseyside. The racecourse later erected a plaque in honour of the local residents who opened their doors to thousands of stranded jockeys and punters, while tales of resourcefulness are legion - the best being the Tote girl who, rather than leave cash unguarded in her booth, put £7,000 in her knickers and walked out with it to safety.

There are many similar gems to be unearthed throughout - from the water jump, the only fence on the course less than 4ft 6in, to a detailed description of the fate of Scottish horses in the race: there has been just one winner, Rubstic, in 1979, ridden by Maurice Barnes. Such information invariably has the reader switching back to the letter 'B' to see what became of Barnes in anticipation of another mini-life story.

The authors do not disappoint. It transpires that Barnes was making his National debut, but creating a splash first time out obviously runs in the family - his father Tommy had finished second on board Wyndburgh when making his debut back in 1962. It's the type of sporting fact that tends to stick and the book is full of them.

Understandably enough, Red Rum is afforded a significant entry, but it's encouraging to read of so many brave horses who tackled Aintree's daunting fences in fearless fashion subsequently went on to enjoy peaceful retirement. A favourite has to be the Scottish horse Freddie, described as one of the race's greatest losers; perhaps unlucky would be more appropriate, not least after being caught up in the chaos that caused Foinavon to win in 1967. Seven months later, following a heart murmur, he was retired and lived until 1985. Such comprehensive detail means that for once, a publication purporting to be a definitive guide does exactly what it says on the cover.

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