Everyone Remembers Their First Time At The Welsh Grand National

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By Graham Thomas

WELSH bookie James Lovell reckons everyone remembers their first time.

For him, his maiden Welsh Grand National at Chepstow arrived early at around the age of five.

“For me as a kid, because it’s held so soon after Christmas, it was always a good chance to get away from a full house of aunts and uncles and Brussels sprouts farts,” he says.

“That’s still why so many people love it. It’s a great excuse to get out of the house, get some fresh air in your lungs at a beautiful racecourse, see old friends, and watch some top class sport.”

The race has a rich history of providing top class sporting entertainment, a staple of the Welsh sporting calendar alongside the Six Nations, the Cardiff City v Swansea City football derbies (league standing permitting) and Glamorgan cricket festivals at St. Helen’s in Swansea.

But it has also served as a ritual setting for social get-togethers and re-unions just days before the turn of the year.

Lovell – one half of the partnership behind Dragon Bet, along with brother David – was taken along to Welsh Grand National days with their father, the late John Lovell, one of Chepstow’s most renowned trackside bookmakers.

“There is always a nice vibe, it’s a very family-orientated day,” he says.

“Kempton on Boxing Day has the King George V1 Chase, which is a real high quality race, but they can’t match the atmosphere of Chepstow on the 27th.

“I think it comes from a sense of patriotism. This is one of the great days of Welsh sport and it fosters a real sense of Welsh identity. You can’t fail to feel that when you’ve had someone like Bryn Terfel singing the anthem beforehand.”

That Welsh feel has been buffed and polished by the Chepstow marketing team in recent years. This year, they will even have a small platoon of Welsh Guards who will march in with the winner’s trophy, while Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau is sung by soprano, Shan Cothi.

If Tom Jones is more your thing, then then he’ll be there too – at least in spirit, through a tribute act. If you want the real Tom, then you’ll have to wait until July when he is booked to perform in concert at the racecourse.

Tom, or tribute Tom, Chepstow always manages to look rather magical at this time of year, with festive lights set against the backdrop of a beautiful Welsh winter landscape.

“Whenever you are at a proper sporting event, there is always that sense of collective ecstasy,” says Lovell.

“It’s like when Wales score a try in the Six Nations, or a goal in a big qualifier at the Cardiff City Stadium.

“That’s what you get with the Welsh Grand National. When the leading horse is powering down through the mud in front of a cheering grandstand – and it’s the perfect course for that that stayer’s race – then there’s nowhere like it.

“That’s why you get people there who you might not see very often, but you’ll catch them at the Welsh National. It’s tradition. They open their stockings on Christmas morning and they go to Chepstow on the 27th.”

Some of the great steeplechasers of British racing have won the race such as Burrough Hill Lad and Bonanza Boy, as well as those who have gone on to win the Grand National itself at Aintree, including Silver Birch, Bindaree and Earth Summit.

If it’s glamour you’re after as well as prestige, then this is the race that ultimately launched the film star career of Dream Alliance, the horse that won in 2009.

Owned by a group of racing enthusiasts who pooled their cash together after a night in the pub discussing their dream of racehorse ownership, it later inspired the movie, Dream Horse.

“There’s been so many great memories for me over the years,” adds Lovell.

“Bindaree in 2003, ridden by a Welsh jockey in Carl Llewellyn, was an early memory for me and Synchonised in 2010 because he went on to win the Gold Cup.

“But as bookmakers, we have had some painful days, too. When Potters Corner won in 2019 it seemed like everyone on the course had put money on it, maybe because Jonathan Davies, the Scarlets and Wales rugby player, was involved.

“We’ll be there as usual on the 27th. Hopefully, we’ll have taken a few English pounds off people the day before at Kempton – and then it won’t hurt so much giving out too many Welsh ones at Chepstow.”

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