The Grand National of April 5th 1997 was going to be a memorable occasion. It was the 150th running of the race and the legendary Sir Peter O’Sullevan was to make his 50th and last commentary. It did become memorable – but for different reasons.
The IRA had been carrying out an intermittent bombing campaign on mainland England since 1973, including atrocities in Warrington, just a few miles away. The previous Thursday had seen gridlock at the junction of the M1 and M6 when two bombs were found. At 2.49 and then three minutes later on that Saturday afternoon, just as the horses were at the post for the opening hurdle race coded phone calls were received saying bombs were at the course.
Clerk of the Course Charles Barnett summoned a hasty conference and Operation Aintree was put into operation. The course had to be evacuated immediately. That was over 60,000 people including jockeys, trainers and royalty. Cars had to be left at the course and horses were mostly transferred to nearby Haydock. Local people opened up their homes to racegoers and jockeys and the local Feathers hotel was so full it put up a Gloucester couple in the sauna. Everton Sports Centre became a hostelry, Fazakerley High School a bed and breakfast and on Sunday the police canteen was open to all. The whole thing was a nuisance to fans of horse racing betting, but they made the best of it.
A bunch of jockeys used the night to do some unusual partying – including meals. On getting their gear from the now opened racecourse on the Sunday panic set in when some stood on the scales and they were pounds heavier than the day before. After extensive searches no bombs had been found. One of the Sunday papers carried the headline: “We’ll fight them on the Becher’s.”
The race was run on the following Monday in front of over 20,000 spectators, all of whom had been allowed in for free and was won by the Tony Dobbin ridden Lord Gyllene. In the field but unplaced were Valiant Warrior, Don’t Light Up and Go Ballistic.