Virtual Grand National 2020: Phil Thomas sets the scene as the nation prepares for a Grand National like no other

A MONTH ago the mere thought was ludicrous – racing fans rubbing their hands at the chance of a cartoon Grand National.

But this afternoon odds are that viewing figures on ITV at 5.15pm will be close to last year’s ratings of 9.8million – and that was for the real thing.

There may even be more. That’s how desperate we are for live sport ­— or the closest thing to it — and to see the 2020 ­Virtual Grand National.

OK, it won’t be the same as seeing Tiger Roll chasing a record-breaking three on the spin. But in the current climate, we’ll take what we can — and this will do nicely, thank you.

ITV’s Who’ll Win The National has become staple viewing the night before the main event. A computer-generated race, based on algorithms, but a whistle-wetter before we head to Aintree.

Only this year it will be taking place when they would have been raising the tape for the National itself.

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For once you can even have a flutter on the virtual race, online obviously with no high street bookies open. And for once, there will be no moaning if you miss out.

A tenner each-way maximum per horse, winnings paid as normal and all profits going to NHS Charities Together. It almost makes you want to lose.

So forget any idea this will be a bookmakers’ benefit or any cock-eyed belief they’re in cahoots with Carm Productions, the brains behind the images.

In fact the bookies are the only ones who stand to lose big time here. After all, if everyone backed the winner, they’d have a bumper pay-out and no chance to lay off liabilities.

Remember, too, there have been markets on things like “Who Killed Lucy Beale,” and the name of the Royal baby for years — and a handful already knew the result of them.

As one bookie told me: “There has never been an integrity issue on these sort of things and there certainly won’t be now.”

Some will still believe it’s a fix, of course. Sporting fans are as cynical as they come, racing ones generally even more so.

But they would be wrong. It is as close to the real thing as you could get, with high-tech images and graphics and a race based on inputted algorithm form-lines.

Those little things like the more experienced jockeys steering clear of the dodgy jumpers, keeping to the outside to have a better chance of avoiding trouble. It’s all there.

No stone is unturned, no scrap of information ignored. And any horse who does come down will live to fight another day.

I suppose if they wanted to make it REALLY authentic, there would be a false start as well. After all, we had enough of them at Cheltenham!

As for the result leaking out? Well the virtual National is being pre-recorded just hours before airing and the handful in the know have signed non-disclosure agreements, swearing them to secrecy.

And the outcome itself? If previous years are any indication, it will be pretty damn close to how it would have turned out. In 2017 Cause Of Causes won the computer race and was runner-up at Aintree.

Last year Rathvinden came out on top in the virtual run and finished third in the real thing.

And in between times Tiger Roll won the virtual National and the first of his two on the bounce the following afternoon.

In terms of realism, the CGI version has tended to be pretty much bang on.
So if you fancied one for the real thing, don’t let that put you off backing it in this either.

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Ah yes, they’ll say, but what about horses being brought down by other fallers, as in the actual race? Well that will be factored in, too.

Don’t assume the Tiger was nailed on to join Red Rum on the three-time roll of honour, either.

He was a bigger price than last year anyway and remains so in the virtual version.

Yes, he loves it at Liverpool and the ‘Aintree factor’ has always played a big part in who comes home first.

But he loves Cheltenham too, probably even more, and was a distant second in the cross-country he won in 2019 when reappearing at the Festival last month.

Remember, too, that 12 months ago he was the first outright favourite to win the National since Hedgehunter in 2005.

All of which means I’ll be having a tenner on both Definitly Red and Any Second Now as potential winners, and 50-1 shot Kildisart to run into a place.

You know what, though?

For the first time ever, I’ll have just as broad a smile if I do my dough. So should you.

We are almost flippant in calling our sporting champions ‘heroes’ these days.

But we all know who the real heroes are.

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