The IRA and the Grand National

On the 5th of April 1997 Aintree Racecourse had welcomed more than 60,000 people through its doors, with everyone gearing up to watch the 150th outing of the world’s greatest steeplechase. The Grand National was and remains the pride of horse racing on Merseyside, equal with the Gold Cup at Cheltenham in terms of National Hunt racing that is considered to be prestigious. Whilst the Gold Cup is the event for horse racing purists, the National is the people’s event, watched and bet on by those that don’t normally consider horse racing as something that they would watch or place a wager on.

With the eyes of the world on Aintree, news began to filter through that the race would not be taking place. At 2.52pm the police control room in Bootle received a call that used recognised codewords. The call informed them that at least one bomb had been planted at Aintree Racecourse, forcing Merseyside Police to evacuate the venue and stop the race from taking place. It was an incredibly powerful image, with at least 20,000 people stranded in Liverpool and one of the most famous jump races on the planet seemingly cancelled. This is the the story of what happened.

The State Of Play At The Time

The details of the Provisional Irish Republican Army’s battle to end British rule in Northern Ireland is far too complex to go into in any great detail here. In short, the army’s aim was to weaken the resolve of the British government to remain in the northern section of the island of Ireland, primarily using a terror campaign based on the notion of bombing targets in London and other areas of England.

The campaign was based around what the IRA referred to as the ‘Long War’, knowing that it wouldn’t be a quick process but rather one that needed to be drawn out in order to constantly keep the British government on the back foot. In August of 1994 a ceasefire was called as the IRA attempted to get the political party with which it most closely associated, Sinn Féin, involved in the peace process for Northern Ireland.

That ceasefire was drawn to an end in February of 1996, with the IRA resuming its war against the British immediately after. They signalled the end of the ceasefire by detonating a truck bomb in the area of Canary Wharf in London, following that up with another truck bomb in Manchester City centre during the summer. Then in March of 1997 the organisation set off two bombs in Wilmslow in Cheshire, injuring nobody but doing extensive damage to Wilmslow Railway Station.

The Calls Came In

IRA scare at GN
The Irish Times

It was with that political unrest in the background that the event of April 1997 unfolded. The 1997 general election was due to be held in May that year, with the IRA determined to make its point prior to the election of the next government. As a result a call was made at 2.49pm to Aintree University Hospital, which is based in Fazakerley, informing the person that answered that a bomb had been placed in the grounds.

Three minutes later and another call was placed to the police control room in Bootle, announcing that at least one bomb had been planted at Aintree Racecourse. Because recognised codewords had been used it was obviously felt that the threat was real. It led to the largest evacuation of a sporting event ever witnessed on British soil, with in excess of 60,000 people being forced to leave the course and hundreds of horses abandoned. Phil Sharp, the stable lad for Suny Bay, had left the course with everyone else but snuck back in order to give water and care to the horses.

It was the culmination of ten days of terror from the IRA, leading to statements from the then Prime Minister John Major as well as Labour’s leader Tony Blair. The Princess Royal was led to a safe location by Special Branch officers, whilst the likes of Gregory Peck and politicians Robin Cook and John Prescott were also at the meeting. Part of the chaos was caused by the fact that the jockeys and trainers were in the middle of preparing for the main event when the calls came through, with jockeys getting ready to mount and horses placed in the paddock ahead of the proposed 3.45pm start time of the race.

Liverpool Threw Open Its Doors

Aintree IRA bombscare commemorative plaque to celebrate the residents of Aintree The IRA’s plan, as is the plan for all terrorist organisations, was to instil fear and panic in the lives of those who were forced to leave the racecourse because of the coded warnings. Instead, as the police carried out two controlled explosions on the course, the world saw a demonstration of the inherent goodness of people. As 20,000 people found themselves stranded on account of the fact that their vehicles were locked inside the course, the people of Liverpool threw open their doors in order to offer them somewhere to stay whilst things were sorted out.

With it being the Saturday night of Grand National weekend, the hotels in Liverpool were full and the people that were expecting to head home in their car or on a coach didn’t have any choice but to find emergency accommodation. BBC Radio Merseyside found itself at the centre of an operation to match those stranded up with places that they could stay. It was a surprise to most because, despite the IRA’s campaign of terror closing three motorways just two days before, it was felt that the Grand National would almost certainly be ok because the race was so popular with people from Ireland.

The evacuation was so thorough and immediate that jockeys were forced to leave the ground in just their silks, breeches and boots. Those that could headed into Liverpool city centre, promptly being greeted by the famous sense of humour that Scousers are renowned for. When the Jockey Jamie Osborne walked into the Adelphi Hotel still wearing his riding gear the doorman said, “Hey, mate, have you come straight from work?” Food, drink and beds were offered by those living close to the racecourse and within the boundaries of Liverpool, with rooms in private homes offered alongside makeshift dormitories in community centres, churches and hotels.

Some of the horses did remain at the racecourse, with others found stabling elsewhere. The majority of them were moved to nearby Haydock Park, with the world-renowned trainer Jenny Pitman crying as she told the story of how she’d had to abandon her horses. She spoke for most of the industry when she said, “These people are lunatics. We must not give into them”. Some of the horses travelled home, but it was tricky for the owners and trainers to know what to do as they weren’t even allowed to go to their horses until the RSPCA persuaded police to allow them to be moved.

The Race Would Be Run On Monday

The overwhelming thought of all of those involved in the world of horse racing was that the terrorists should not be allowed to win. Jockey Osborne said, “The race should be re-run. We should not consider abandonment at all. They have not targeted racing, they are targeting larger issues and we should race at a later date”. It was a sentiment echoed by the Chief Executive of the British Horse Racing Board, Tristram Ricketts, who said that there was a determination to re-run the race ‘as soon as possible’.

In the end Merseyside Police gave clearance for the race to take place on the Monday. It was a decision that Colonel Mike Dewar, an expert in security, approved of. He was of the belief that staging the race so quickly after the evacuation was the right thing to do, given that it would be in danger whenever it was run but by doing it so quickly it gave the IRA little time to cause such destruction. By guarding the racecourse and its weak points over the weekend, the police could limit the possibility of another bomb being planted on the course.

It was just as well that the decision was taken to run the race on the Monday rather than abandon it altogether. At the time, the bookmaker William Hill estimated that the abandonment of the race would cost them in the region of £2 million. Instead, by having it take place on the Monday, punters could decide to either leave their bets standing or else cancel them. That wasn’t the case for bets placed with the Tote, which were declared null and void and all those that had their tickets given their stake back.

The Race Itself

In the weeks building up the planned running of the race, Go Ballistic had been installed as the favourite thanks to his fourth-place finish in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. It was believed by many that he’d been undervalued in the weights by the handicapper, with his chances bolstered by the fact that he was to be ridden by the previous year’s victorious jockey, Mick Fitzgerald. In the end he disappointed, heading off at 7/1 and bursting a blood vessel when tenth at the penultimate fence, being pulled up as a result.

Suny Bay, whose stable lad, Phil Sharp, had stayed on the course to look after the horses when the venue had been evacuated, was a popular selection on account of the fact that he’d won the Haydock Park Grand National Trial in February. He ran well until he was four from home, making a bad mistake that caused him to drop back from the leader. He ultimately came in second, which was a decent showing for a grey in the National.

There were two fatalities during the race, with the first being Jenny Pitman’s Smith’s Band. He’d been disputing the lead but fell that the 20th, suffering a broken neck and dying instantly as a result. Straight Talk, meanwhile, had fallen at the 14th and, it transpired, broken a leg. That meant that he had to be put down, with horses unable to cope without the use of one of its legs.

Lord Gyllene Had been the favourite on ante-post betting until a couple of days before the race, at which point he’d drifted out to as long as 14/1. Tony Dobbin rode the 9-year-old well, however, and when Suny Bay made his mistake four from home it allowed Lord Gyllene to gain an unassailable lead. In the end he finished the race 25 lengths clear of Osborne and Suny Bay. They crossed the finish line 49 hours after the original race would have finished, had it taken place as normal.

The race on the Saturday was being covered by the BBC. It was presented by Des Lynam and approximately 400 million people tuned in to watch. The BBC also kept the broadcasting rights for the re-run on the Monday. What many watching at the racecourse and at home weren’t aware of was the fact that Merseyside Police had received another bomb threat prior to the race taking place on the Monday. Having kept the venue in lockdown since the Saturday, however, the police were confident that it was a hoax and allowed the race to take place without any disruption.

Was There Ever A Bomb?

The one question that has never been satisfactorily answered was whether there was ever actually a bomb planted at Aintree Racecourse. Certainly Sir Paul Stephenson, the Assistant Chief Constable of Merseyside Police at the time, was never convinced that a bomb had actually been planted. That was in spite of the two controlled explosions that the force carried out on suspicious packages at the racecourse on the day that the race was supposed to take place.

For others it was seen as a new phase in the development of the Provisional Irish Republican Army’s long-term terror campaign. The belief was that the two phone calls made to the hospital in Fazakerley and Aintree Racecourse were hoaxes. The National Coordinator For Antiterrorism, Commander John Grieve, believed that the right thing to do was to take the threat seriously because actual bombs had been detonated in the buildup to the race, but that no evidence of bombs were ever found.