If you’d have told horse racing fans that they’d be watching a computerised version of the Grand National on April 4th, with a nationwide lockdown in full effect, you would have received more than a few funny looks. But that is the extraordinary situation horse racing – and sport in general – has found itself in as a result of the coronavirus outbreak and the containment measures put in place to help lessen its spread.
The announcement that a Virtual Grand National would be held in lieu of the real-life Aintree showpiece, which was one the victims of the government’s banning of mass gatherings, brought joy to horse racing fans around the world – those eager for the chance to enjoy some fast racing results. It was also a chance to raise some vital funds for a good cause, as it was confirmed that all proceeds from betting on the race would be donated to NHS Charities, to help those fighting the virus on the frontline.
As soon as it was announced, talk turned to who the virtual favourites would be, and whether or not a dark horse would emerge to take the title. Naturally, Tiger Roll, who has won the real-life Grand National on the previous two occasions, was installed as the early favourite, with a host of other contenders fancied by the bookies as well.
There is a plethora of different statistical factors taken into consideration when it comes to the running of a virtual race. Simulations are formed using mathematical algorithms based on data taken from horses’ previous performances. Other factors such as weight, age, and weather conditions play a part, and overall a virtual simulation of a horse race is just as unpredictable as the Grand National itself.
The 2020 race was not actually the first edition of the Virtual Grand National. It had ran for three years previously, with the simulation correctly presenting Tiger Roll as the winner in 2018, and the other two winners of the virtual race were also right in the mix in the respective real-life races in those years.
However, this time around there was something of a shock, as the 18/1 shot Potters Corner stole the show and won the Virtual Grand National, consigning hot favourite Tiger Roll to a fourth-place finish. It was a tight finish in the end, with 16/1 chance Walk In The Mill taking the fight to Potters Corner on the home stretch, but the Christian Williams-trained horse prevailed in the end.
The race retained its slot at 5pm on ITV, and millions tuned in around the world to witness this unique sporting occasion. The television coverage attempted to be as true to a real-life Grand National as possible – the broadcast presented by Nick Luck, with punditry from Alice Plunkett and Richard Pitman, and commentary by Stewart Machin.
In the end, it was a great occasion for the British public, and a welcome distraction from the sad news which had been dominating headlines for so many weeks. While the Virtual Grand National did not quite offer the magic of its real-life counterpart, it went a long way towards granting some welcome sporting action to a nation starved of horse racing and just about every other sport. The race was a great success, and raised £2.6 million for the NHS, although the racing fans among us were still left pining for some real-life action.