From the moment that the Jockey Club confirmed that the Grand National would not be taking place as normal this year because of the Coronavirus pandemic, horse racing lovers the world over have been crying out for some sort of replacement. Now it looks as though they’ve been given one, in the form of the virtual Grand National that ITV will be broadcasting instead.
The virtual Grand National is the brainchild of Inspired Entertainment, who use computer algorithms and Random Number Generators to predict the outcome of the National that can be watched thanks to development in Computer Generated Imagery. Obviously it’s not the real thing, but might it be able to fill the whole left by the cancellation of the actual race?
Why The Grand National Was Cancelled
If you aren’t quite sure why the Grand National was cancelled by the Jockey Club in March then you’ve probably been living under a rock. That might not be a bad thing, in fairness, and you might want to think about crawling back under it and waiting for this whole thing to blow over. The outbreak of the Coronavirus from the city of Wuhan in China is the reason, shutting down sport globally.
The new strain of Coronavirus, called Covid-19, spread out of the Hubei province at the end of 2019 and began to move around the world. Because of the nature of the disease there is no cure for it at present, nor is there a vaccine against it. That led to the World Health Organisation declaring it to be a pandemic, with sports being cancelled in most places around the globe.
That is because governments have been straining to find a way to curb the Coronavirus’ impact, given that it is killing tens of thousands of people and hospitals are being overwhelmed. One of the chief ways of stopping its spread is by limiting contact between people, which was the thinking behind the government’s decision to cancel any major gatherings such as sports events.
The Jockey Club was loath to cancel the event known as the ‘World’s Greatest Steeplechase’ and watched by more than 500 million people around the globe. Yet when the British government said that people were to ‘avoid non-essential contact and unnecessary travel’, it was clear that the race would struggle to go ahead as normal.
The initial plan was for British racing to be moved behind closed doors, with the race’s importance to the sport well understood by the Jockey Club. Even that was acknowledged as not being a viable option, however, so the decision was taken to cancel it altogether. Sandy Dudgeon of the organisation said, “very sadly these are exceptional times and this is the responsible thing to do”.
What Is The Virtual Grand National?
The cancellation of the Grand National was a sad moment for racing. The race took place in both 1997 when the Irish Republican Army issued a bomb threat to Aintree Racecourse, albeit two days late, and in 2001 when many meetings were cancelled because of the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. Indeed, this is the first time there’ll be no race since the Second World War.
ITV Racing was due to broadcast the event, but with no race taking place it looked as though it wasn’t going to have anything to put on its schedule for the 4th of April. Thankfully technology has come to the rescue of both the broadcaster and the race-loving public. The virtual Grand National is the creation of Inspired Entertainment and was due to be shown anyway.
Since 2017 the virtual Grand National has been shown in advance of the main event, giving watching punters some ideas about which horse they should bet on in the big race. In 2017, for example, it predicted that Cause Of Causes would win the race only for One For Arthur to do so and the Gordon Elliott trained horse to come second.
The virtual Grand National is a CGI depiction of what a computer algorithm thinks will happen in the race itself. It differs from the virtual Grand National events that you can bet on with certain bookmakers, which take place every 3 minutes or so and simply use a CGI Aintree Racecourse as the backdrop for a race involving fake horses that is decided by a Random Number Generator.
How It Works
The virtual Grand National that I’m talking about here is much more complex than that. In years gone by Inspired Entertainment have looked in detail at the racing style and form of the horses that have been declared for the race, inputting that information into computer algorithms along with other factors such as the Going to see how the race could potentially transpire.
A horse’s previous form, whether it favours a particular type of weather and how it has done in the race in the past are all inputted into an algorithm, which is then fed into a Random Number Generator. The RNG is able to use the information from the algorithm in order to weigh certain horses more favourably than others, therefore giving a reasonably accurate prediction.
Horses are still able to refuse a fence, unseat their rider or even fall at a fence. The only major difference is that they can’t get injured in the CGI version of the race, which pleases animal rights groups that don’t like the real life event. Punters up and down the country who were disappointed about the race’s cancellation will be interested to see how the virtual version plays out.
Where Can You Watch It?
The virtual Grand National will be broadcast on ITV. It will be shown on the home of televised racing in the United Kingdom some time between 5pm and 5.30pm on the 4th of April, which is when the programme will be broadcast. It is quite literally being shown instead of the proper race, which was also down to be run on the 4th of April before its cancellation.
As well as the virtual Grand National that will use the horses that were most likely to have taken part in the race, ITV will also be showing a very special event: the Race Of Champions. This will be a Computer Generated Image version of the Grand National featuring some of the race’s most iconic horses. The likes of Foinavon and Red Rum will go up against Tiger Roll.
Betting On The Virtual Grand National
At the time of writing, only a few bookmakers are offering odds on the outcome of the virtual Grand National but that will increase closer to the race. The company that runs the race, Inspired, also already provide virutal horse race feeds and odds to UK bookies and so this is something they know very well.
Normal virtual races are more like games than sports as there is a set margin and return to player percentage that the bookie knows in advance. The difference here is the bookies themselves are not running the races and so in many ways this will be more like a real horse race from an odds perspective as the prices will vary depending on how much is bet on a runner, creating a market where runners can be both short and long compared to their actual chances of winning.
Remember bookmakers only care about balancing books and making profits, they don’t really care who wins the race. In this case they won’t be able to balance the book on Tiger Roll and the big favourites, so if one of those wins it could cost them, just as it would do in the real race.
The race itself cannot be fixed, it is run using a random number generator and algorithms that are regulated and tested independently. In many ways it is far more immune to rigging than a real world race. Inspired, the bookies and the punters have no idea of the result until the race is run.
One thing we do know is that the sheer volume of bets usually placed on the National won’t be there this time around, nor will the same number of markets be available. That doesn’t mean that it won’t be worth a flutter, though.
Will It Be A Worthy Replacement?
The reality of the world right now is that people are feeling starved of live sport. Everything from Premier League football through to international cricket tests has been cancelled, with this summer’s European Championship being delayed until 2021. We know that there is a big market for people wanting to watch any kind of sport, even if it’s CGI in nature.
ITV can expect a reasonably big audience for Saturday, then. After all, the vast majority of people are unable to go out and the Grand National is the horse race that people who don’t like horse racing will watch. The combination of it being the World’s Greatest Steeplechase and the fact that people will be intrigued to see how a virtual race would play out will see many people watching.
The key question is about whether those people watching will be happy with what they encounter. Inspired Entertainment use the latest in Computer Generated Images to bring the horses and jockeys to life, but it obviously still lacks the nitty gritty of real life horse racing. You won’t see the mud fly off a horse’s hooves, for example, or their muscles strain as they lift off for a jump.
That being said, it will please animal rights groups that have a strong dislike of the real race because of the number of horses that are injured or die during its running. The problem is that animal rights groups aren’t the target audience for live racing, so the opinion of true race lovers will be what dictates the future of virtual Grand Nationals.
On that front we do have previous years that we can look back on, judging how the watching public reacted to the virtual races shown. When the 2019 virtual Grand National was shown on ITV, as an example, one viewer complained that they were being shown a simulation instead of the ‘actual race live right now’.
It Could Be The Future
Whilst Rob McLoughlin, the Executive Producer of the virtual race, believes that his company has been ‘brave’ to attempt to preview ‘the most unpredictable race of all’ and some people have been annoyed in the past about ITV’s decision to show a virtual version of the main event, some people believe that it’s not only fascinating but could also be the future of racing.
In the wake of the 2018 virtual Grand National, Robin Gibson wrote a piece for the Racing Post. In it he pointed out that there were dozens of positive messages on social media about the CGI event. He also drew attention to the fact that a YouGuv poll put the race’s popularity at more than Donald Trump but less than Jeremy Clarkson, so more than a few people wouldn’t mind a virtual version of the real thing.
This year will be the biggest test of the virtual Grand National’s popularity. Whereas in years gone by people were quick to complain because it was being shown instead of actual racing that was taking place at the time, 2020 will be the year that there is no real racing to show and the virtual alternative might just be accepted as a solid option.
With thousands of people up and down the country likely to still be doing sweepstakes with their friends and family, it will give those with only a passing interest in the sport a sense of what virtual racing could offer in the future. If it comes out of the experience with more positive reviews than negative ones then it might well be taken more seriously by the powers that be. Especially given the Covid-19 pandemic shows no sign of slowing down.