UK RACING: Virtual Grand National raises spirits and real cash for National Health Service

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Jockeys and horses at the start of the Virtual Grand National

LONDON, United Kingdom (AFP) — Former Wales rugby star Jonathan Davies wanted one small matter cleared up as part-owner of the big race-winner Potters Corner at Aintree last Saturday: “So is there Virtual Grand National prize money?”.

With the world’s most famous steeplechase falling victim to the coronavirus shutdown, the computer-generated edition, now in its third year, found itself taking centre stage.

Tiger Roll, seeking a historic third-straight win, was sent off favourite but had to settle for fourth behind 18-1 shot Potters Corner, the winner according to complex mathematical algorithms.

Bookmakers are donating all profits from betting on the animated race, shown live on ITV, to Britain’s state-run National Health Service, which is in the front line in the fight against COVID-19.

David Stevens of betting firm Coral told The Racing Post it had provided some welcome respite: “The Virtual Grand National proved to be a really popular replacement for the real thing.”

He said it had provided “a fun opportunity for, people to have their annual National flutter, as well as some light relief at this unique time, while most importantly also helping to raise money for the fantastic NHS”.

The company behind the event, programme-makers Carm Productions, told the paper: “What an incredible few days it has been! We first aired the Virtual Grand National in 2017, and we feel honoured that it has been able to stand in for the Grand National at this difficult time.”

The result was greeted with delight by winning trainer Christian Williams who tweeted a photo with his two children, both on toy horses but wearing the victorious red, black and white silks of Potters Corner’s owners, All Stars Sports Racing.

But there was dismay for jockey Charlie Deutsch, on board Aso.

The 66-1 outsider had victory in his sights, cruising in front, before a fall at the second-last fence.

Deutsch summed up his feelings in one word on Twitter: “Nooooooooo!”

The Professional Jockeys Association responded: “Hope you had your gumshield in Charlie!”

Such was the race’s prominence in sport-starved Britain, Williams said his phone had been red hot with well-wishers, and the BBC and ITV news rooms.

“It’s nice that racing has been able to do something like that and cheer everyone up,” he said.

“I’ve had hundreds of messages, including from people outside of racing who watched it. It’s brilliant that racing can bring a smile in tough times.

“I’ve got about 20 people to ring back; I’ve had the BBC and News At Ten calling me!”

Coronavirus has claimed the lives of 4,313 people in the UK with 41,903 infected, according to the latest official figures released by the health ministry on Saturday.