The Grand National at Aintree in early April has been seen as “The People’s Race” for much of its 185-year history, and the fact that it is a handicap with – until this year, at least – 40 or more runners has also ensured that a broader sweep of owners have seen their colours go to post for the world’s most famous steeplechase than would be case in a level-weights event like the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
That, in turn, has meant that a steady trickle of “celebrity” owners from other walks of life, sport and entertainment have had National runners, and winners, down the years.
Big names from Hollywood (Gregory Peck), football (Sir Alex Ferguson), rugby (Mike Tindall and James Simpson-Daniel) and TV (Freddie Starr) have sprinkled a little of their stardust on the Aintree showpiece, while Ronnie Wood, of Rolling Stones fame, was days away from seeing his home-bred gelding Sandymount Duke line up in 2019 when a late setback intervened. Harry Redknapp’s Shakem Up’Arry is among the entries for this year’s race on 13 April, for which the weights will be revealed at the traditional lunch in Liverpool next week.
But so too is Jonjo O’Neill’s Monbeg Genius, a horse whose owners are unlikely to be top of the list when Great British Racing, effectively the sport’s marketing department, is planning its pre-Aintree publicity drive.
In a statement that dribbled out somewhat apologetically late on Friday afternoon, the British Horseracing Authority confirmed that the eight-year-old, who is owned by Barrowman Racing Limited, is not among the £75m of assets belonging to Michelle Mone and her husband, Doug Barrowman, that have been “frozen” by a court order while the National Crime Agency continues investigations into £202m of government contracts awarded to the firm PPE Medpro during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Mone and Barrowman have, of course, been the subject of intense scrutiny for many months over their links to PPE Medpro. In addition to the NCA investigation, the government has initiated proceedings to recover £122m, plus costs, from the company after the government rejected PPE Medpro’s gowns following checks. The couple, though, have strongly denied any wrongdoing, with Barrowman stating that “Michelle and I are being hung out to dry to distract attention from government incompetence in how it handled PPE procurement at [a] time of national emergency.”
Monbeg Genius has not seen a track since 2 December last year, when he finished a highly promising third in the valuable Coral Gold Cup at Newbury, off a mark of 147. That was just his seventh start over fences, his mark is likely to be unchanged when the National weights are published and he is clearly wide-open to further improvement, particularly over marathon trips. Last season’s form, meanwhile, also includes a close third behind Corach Rambler, last year’s Grand National winner, at Cheltenham in March, when he was getting 6lb from the winner. He can expect to get around twice as much if or when they line up for this year’s National.
In other words, Monbeg Genius’s profile has pretty much everything you could ever hope to see in a Grand National contender, including a trainer with a previous winner on his CV. The fact that he has been scratched from two recent races at the overnight stage is a concern, but O’Neill still has two months to get him ready and suggested at Cheltenham recently that the gelding is “nearly there” in terms of being able to race.
As has been noted in the past, there are both positives and negatives attached to the National’s status as the only race all year that gets the attention of the nation. But that’s how it is and how it will stay, and if Monbeg Genius makes it to the start on 13 April, all eyes will be on the horse that stands to make (another) half a million quid for one of Britain’s more … controversial couples. The reception from a well-oiled Liverpudlian crowd should he come home in front, meanwhile, could also be quite lively, for all that O’Neill and his jockey son, Jonjo Jr, would be very popular winners.
There is, of course, a “fit-and-proper” test for owners in place these days, which includes, under “General Suitability”, a clause stating that “a person whose conduct, behaviour or character is not in accordance with that which, in the opinion of the Authority, should be expected of a registered person, may not be considered suitable and may therefore be refused registration.”
The test was extended to owners a dozen years ago, and there was little reason to consider its relevance to Barrowman and Mone when Barrowman Racing Limited was formed back in the 2021-22 season. Two-and-a-half years later, though, the situation is somewhat different, and for as long as Monbeg Genius remains in the running for Aintree, the BHA can expect to be fielding questions about his owners and how it applies its “fit-and-proper” rules.