THE Grand National, despite its place in the affections of the British public, has long been a race with a divisive past. For animal rights campaigners it is an event that exposes participants to unnecessary peril, sometimes even death, each year. To those in the racing industry, the argument is turned on its head – the animals only exist because they have been bred specifically for the race and as a result of changes made to the course to ensure greater safety there have not been any fatalities in it since 2012.

For obvious reasons, the 'virtual' edition did not meet with such scrutiny, with a projected £1million given to the NHS from bookmakers' profits to help in the fight against Coronavirus, it has been lauded by newspapers and television stations. But there are those who believe it should have received a little more attention than mere cheerleading.

Betting on the National has, for the most part, been a frivolous thing. Each year, the horse with the name of a favourite uncle, aunt, son or daughter, a coloured silk or lucky number carries thousands of pounds on its back. The financial exchange takes the form of an annual trip to the betting shop for 50p each-way singles for all the family. The Virtual Grand National, for all its good-cause pretensions, made this a more insidious process, by way of a downloaded app and the exchange of bank details.

Glasgow Times:

Tiger Roll's second successive triumph cost the bookies the best part of £250million last year but there was no chance of similar losses being incurred with stakes limited to £10 each way and in some instances to a fraction of the tenner limit. One Betfair customer was offered a bet with a maximum stake of £3.12; Paddy Power limited some punters to a pound or less.

There is a wider ethical debate to be had about this race. On the one hand, the bookies should be applauded for donating the profits to the NHS; however a cynic might suggest that, by capping bets, donations will be minimal and liabilities for the betting companies limited. It also speaks to a problem within the gambling industry itself – bookies want losers and punish those bettors who are profitable.

Anyone who gambles regularly will already know this. It is probably less apparent to those who bet once a year on the National. What might also be unknown is that problem gamblers – many of whom are addicted to virtual gambling machines – cost the NHS anywhere between £180m-£760m, according to a report released by Gamble Aware in 2016.

With nothing to do, people sitting at home may have been tempted to download betting apps they might never have used before. Many will have deleted them straight after the race. Those who don't may be exposed to the kind of aggressive marketing that more regular gamblers take for granted.

Glasgow Times:

“This shouldn't be allowed to happen,” Caan Berry, a professional trader, told his YouTube channel last week. “This is basically a virtual Trojan Horse, designed specifically for bookmakers and it is being sold under a completely false pretence. It sounds noble on one hand but when you look at what is actually happening this is extremely dangerous.”

Berry's argument holds a degree of substance, albeit his scenario requires people to take the next step by downloading the bookies apps but there is a precedent. In January, the head of the NHS mental service in England wrote to five major gambling companies highlighting incentives and VIP treatment offered to would-be punters as a means to entice them into betting.

The Gambling Commission subsequently announced plans to limit VIP accounts and to tighten up regulations around advertising. Yet, this scenario undermines that commitment.

Make no mistake, problem betting is nothing new. In 1867, Cortolvin won the race for the 12th Duke of Hamilton. An inveterate gambler, he had run up such significant debts that most of the treasures housed within Hamilton Palace had to be sold off. The win restored most of his personal fortune but the damage to the estate had already been done.

For good or ill, it is stories such as this, often more than the race itself that provide the greatest intrigue, the name of the successful horse merely the final few paragraphs as the tale draws to its thrilling conclusion.

Glasgow Times:

Foinavon had a fence named after him after winning a farcical race in 1967; the 17-year-old Bruce Hobbs prevailed on the ironically named Battleship, to become the youngest and smallest winners respectively; Dick Saunders, at 48, was the oldest winner in his first and only National on Grittar in 1982. Bob Champion, a year earlier, returned from stomach cancer to steer Aldaniti to victory.

Such tales make the Grand National what it is – a jamboree of colour, sound, and noise with a distinctly human touch.

In three previous runnings of the Virtual Grand National, the winner of the actual race finished second, first and third so it may well have been that Potters Corner would have won the 5.15 at Aintree yesterday. Certainly computers and science have enhanced sport to unprecedented, hyperreal levels. Alas, this version was a staccato, disjointed representation stretching reality to such a point that the winning jockey Jack Tudor, putatively the youngest winner since Hobbs, might not even have qualified for the ride.