COVID-19 has seen the postponement of the 2020 Olympics and the Euro 2020 football championships, the suspension of domestic and international football and rugby competitions and the close-down of horse-racing. It has done more damage to the sporting programme than the break-out of World War Two did in 1939. We had a Grand National in 1940- and football resumed albeit on a regional basis.
With the wretched virus showing no sign of relenting, the sporting shutdown is likely to last for several months more. So what do we do? ’Go virtual’ is one answer.
This afternoon, at 5.15 pm, ITV will be broadcasting live, a ‘Virtual Grand National’. Data such as the horse’s form, its weight, age, and going conditions, (the virtual race will be run on ‘Good’ going’), have been fed into a computer and complex mathematical algorithms will do the rest. We’re told that the CGI of the horses will be the best yet, and you can even bet on the outcome- with bookmakers’ profits going to NHS charities.
Although not broadcast live, Virtual Grand Nationals have been held the past three years- and it’s fair to say the results have been remarkably accurate when compared to the actual race. In 2017, Cause of Causes won the Virtual running, he was a close second in the real thing. In 2018 Tiger Roll won both the Virtual Race and the real race. Last year’s Virtual winner Rathvinden, came third in the Grand National proper. So we can say there’s a fair chance that the horses that finish in the places- or at least some of them- would have done there or thereabouts had COVID-19 not struck. But we can't be sure.
One thing the computer won’t be generating are the ‘Black Swan’ or ’left-field’ events that periodically occur in the Grand National. In 1956 the Queen Mother’s Devon Loch was less than fifty yards from the winning post when the horse famously did the splits and big race glory snatched from horse and rider in the most sensational fashion. In 1967, there was a multiple pile-up due to a loose horse at the 23rd fence, and Foinavon, whose odds were 444-1 on the Tote, emerged the shock winner. In 2001 there was another multiple pile-up at the Canal Turn and after further havoc, on the very wet ground, just two horses, Red Marauder and Smarty were left in contention in the business end of the race.
That’s the thing, not just about racing, but all ‘real’ sport. Sometimes something completely bonkers occurs. A ‘Virtual’ football version of the 2004 European Championships would never have resulted in a win for the rank outsiders Greece. Nor would it have given us Leicester City’s incredible 5,000-1 Premiership win in 2015/6, or Wigan Athletic’s totally unexpected FA Cup success in 2013.
And of course, CGI can never match the excitement of being at the real event. Two of my greatest thrills this year have been driving a husky dog sled across a frozen lake and in driving snow in Swedish Lapland, and standing by a fence out on the Cross Country course at the Cheltenham Racing Festival and seeing the horses thunder by. I doubt if watching this year’s Virtual National from my living room sofa will go anywhere near it.
If we had a ‘real Grand National today (run on the probable good-to-soft ground), then among the horses on my shortlist would be Kimberlite Candy, Walk in the Mill, Pleasant Company and Definitely Red. Tiger Roll would be very likely to go close in his bid for a historic third consecutive victory, but his big weight (11st 10lbs) would probably, on the stats, mean the difference between a win and an honourable place. It’ll be interesting to see what the computer says, and we’ll find out at about 5.25 pm today.
If a ‘Virtual National’ is the only way of enjoying a horse-race today, I’ll take it- and of course it’s great that it will be raising much-needed funds for the NHS. But however enjoyable a distraction it proves to be, and however ‘realistic’ the horses look on our screens, we mustn’t kid ourselves that it is the same as the real thing. Life is not a computer game- and a computer game is not life.
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