03/28/2003 12:00AM

Grand National grueling, popular


DUBLIN - The Martell Grand National at Aintree Racecourse outside Liverpool is often billed as "the world's greatest race," and though that may just be Eurocentric bragging, it's close enough to the truth to pack the stands. First run in 1839, the race is a grueling test of stamina over a steeplechase course that covers about 4 1/2 miles. It requires the horses to jump 30 fences and cross open ditches and fast-flowing brooks, a feat that only a handful ever complete successfully.

Aintree is a very popular place with the racing crowd, even when the Grand National's not on the card. Last year, the average attendance during meetings topped out at almost 30,000 fans a day. That figure will rise significantly on April 5, when the 149 horses entered in the 2003 race will be pared down to a semi-manageable field of 40 or so, while handicappers worldwide scratch their heads and try to decide how much form really matters in a contest so often determined by luck.

Even the best jockeys need to be lucky to avoid falling at Aintree. The fences are the stiffest around and range in height from 4-foot-6 to 6 feet. Because the course isn't level, a horse in midair doesn't know if it will land on higher or lower ground. That leads to missteps and stumbles. At the infamous Becher's Brook, horses must negotiate a 4-foot-10-inch fence, as well as a 5-foot-6-inch-wide brook on the landing side. Here riders frequently "come to grief," as the British saying goes. In 2002, only 11 of the 39 entries managed to be standing at the finish. The rest fell, were pulled up, or unseated their jockeys.

Among the Grand National favorites this year is Chives, an 8-year-old from the stable of Henrietta Knight. Knight, a former schoolteacher, is known for her displays of anxiety while her horses are running, sometimes hiding her eyes to keep from witnessing a mishap. She recently won the Cheltenham Gold Cup with Best Mate, a moment so emotional that the entire Knight entourage probably set a record for the Most Tears Shed After a Major Race. Best Mate will not run in the Grand National.

Though Chives finished a distant seventh in the Gold Cup, about 20 lengths back of his stablemate, Knight still believes in his chances. So do the bookies, who price Chives at 11-1. That sounds generous, but many horses will go to post at odds of 100-1 or better. The leading lights, Ad Hoc (6-1) and Shotgun Willy (7-1), both come from the barn of Paul Nicholls, who has produced winners at a 25 percent rate this season. In Ireland, where tips are traded freely and credited more than they should be, The Bunny Boiler is being touted at 40-1.

Fate, though, holds all the aces at Aintree. The Grand National's history is rich in strange occurrences and unexpected results. One of the most bizarre involves Dick Francis, who later made his mark as a writer. In 1956, Francis was riding Devon Loch in the Queen Mother's colors and had the race won when his mount mysteriously collapsed 50 yards from the finish. To this day, nobody can explain exactly what happened.

It's the riskiness that turns the Grand National into a huge gambling carnival. In Dublin, every child old enough to say "Guinness" is already pestering his parents to put down a bet on a longshot, the proceeds to be spent on sweets. Little girls are eager to wager, operating under the influence of Elizabeth Taylor in "National Velvet." As for the owners and trainers, their fantasies center on a piece of the prize money - 600,000 pounds sterling, or about $950,000 at the going rate.

Meanwhile, flat racing on the turf is back again and as welcome as the daffodils. Punters tired of the lackluster winter action on the all-weather tracks in the UK brightened considerably after recent meetings at Doncaster in England and The Curragh in County Kildare. The feature race at Doncaster was the Lincoln Handicap, valued at about $100,000 to the winner and run over a straight mile on the grass - no turns at all, that is. With 22 horses entered, the action resembled a cavalry charge.

If the Lincoln was difficult to handicap, lesser races like the Bluebell Stakes were flat-out impossible. Again, 22 horses went to post, among them such well-traveled veterans as Juwwi, a 9-year-old gelding with 135 races under his belt, and James Stark, a mere upstart at the age of 6, who has managed to squeeze out just two victories after 48 tries on the turf. The temptation to drop all the names in a hat and pick one at random was very nearly irresistible.

At The Curragh, the fields were thankfully smaller and provided a showcase for Aidan O'Brien and his Ballydoyle crew as they prepare for their annual battle with the gents from Godolphin for the flat racing crown. Tomahawk, Ireland's top-rated juvenile last year, trounced his opponents at odds of 1-2 and looked like a prospect for the Kentucky Derby, though O'Brien claimed to have no such plan in mind.

Tomahawk was impressive, but it was O'Brien's demonstration of equine superiority that had ordinary trainers gasping for breath. He sent out his stars for an exercise gallop in the gloaming after the last race on the card - Brian Boru, favored for the Vodafone Derby; High Chapparal, who won the Breeder's Cup Turf last autumn; and the Eclipse Stakes winner Hawk Wing, all of them in sublime condition and appearing to enjoy the command performance.

As if that weren't enough, O'Brien's second string was just as eye-catching. You had to admire the owners, too, for coming up with such names as Warhol, Alberto Giacometti, and The Great Gatsby. It spoke of a highbrow, literate background not normally associated with the track, but the track, as we all know, is full of surprises.