At the time it felt like an existential disaster, a blow to the credibility of the Grand National from which it might never recover.
Twenty years later it is possible to raise at least a weak smile about the afternoon in April 1993 when a worldwide audience in hundreds of millions watched an unfolding drama with all the elements of a classic British farce.
There was the class division between the ex-Army captain in charge of starting the 1993 Grand National and the £28-a-day casual flagman who failed to stop it. There was the hideous embarrassment, the bedlam and idiotic misunderstandings. And there was even the stiff upper lip, when Keith Brown, the starter, suggested – apparently in all seriousness – that the race should be run with just the nine horses that had obeyed the instruction to stop after a second false start.
As John Upson, the trainer of Zeta's Lad, one of the favourites for the race, pointed out at the time, "if they'd done that, the crowd would have burned Aintree to the ground". But then, on this afternoon in the Twilight Zone, as one unthinkable occurrence followed another, it might not have seemed so strange to add one more.
The events at Aintree on 3 April 1993 were dissected in great detail and at great length by the high court judge Sir Michael Connell – who died earlier this year — in a report published two months later. The basic facts, though, are these.
The start of the race was delayed by animal rights activists, who staged a protest near the first fence. Brown then made two attempts to send the 39 runners on their way. On both occasions, the long length of elastic on the starting gate, which was sagging and waterlogged after persistent rain, snagged on one of the runners as it rose.
Brown declared a false start both times and at the first time of asking the recall system worked as planned. Brown waved a flag to alert Ken Evans, a recall man stationed on the run to the first fence, and he in turn waved a flag to tell the jockeys to pull up.
After the second false start, however, Evans – according to Connell – failed to wave his flag (although this was something that Evans always denied). Thirty horses set off and jumped the first and, though some pulled up or fell at various stages, including 11 who stopped before going out on to the second circuit, seven completed the course.
First past the post was Esha Ness, a 50-1 chance ridden by John White, called home by Peter O'Sullevan as the winner of "the National that surely isn't". The moment when White's triumph turned to despair was on every front page the following day and remains one of the most vivid of all images of a sportsman as his world collapses around him. White, who never won the race again, spoke later of the moment when he realised his career highlight was going to be taken away. "You could wait a lifetime and only have one good shot at winning the National. The first inkling I had that something might be wrong was when fellow jockey Dean Gallagher came up to me just past the winning post to say that he thought the race was off. I was stunned."
Second past the post was Cahervillahow, with Charlie Swan, Ireland's champion jockey, in the saddle. "I remember that down at the start, I knew that it was a bit funny," Swan said this week. "There were a lot of protesters around waving flags and shouting things as we were showing the horses the first fence. When we jumped off [the second time], we weren't really sure if it was a false start or not. Everybody went and I'd been told that, if I won, the owner was going to look after me well, so I kept going.
"There's a point of no return and that's what it was. Halfway round there were people waving flags but it was hard to know, was it officials or was it protesters, so everybody just kept going. Everybody said, we'll finish the race, and see what happens after."
As O'Sullevan had predicted, the 1993 Grand National was declared void and an estimated £75m in bets on the race was returned to punters. Hopes that the race could be restaged were soon found to be impractical and an ineradicable gap appeared on the Aintree roll of honour.
Among those who helped to pick up the pieces was John Maxse, now a PR consultant with the British Horseracing Authority but in 1993 a newly arrived office junior in the Jockey Club's PR operation.
"David Pipe, the [Jockey Club's] director of public affairs, was pretty thick-skinned and he took it in his stride as much as he could," Maxse says. "But I think it was a very difficult, life-affecting day for Keith Brown. He never spoke about it to anyone from the press.
"It had a significant impact on the Jockey Club and how it approached its role. There used to be a handful of void races every year for a variety of reasons, for instance if there was an injured horse or rider and a fence couldn't be jumped, and there was a review of how to minimise the outcomes where a race is void. That led to people finding ways of bypassing fences at Aintree [as has happened in each of the last two renewals, when a void race might otherwise have occurred]."
The list of riders who took part in the void Grand National includes three – Simon McNeill, Robbie Supple and Seamus O'Neill – who are now employed by the BHA as starters.
It offers some perspective, too. Royle Speedmaster, a 200-1 shot from the Oliver Sherwood yard, went to the start that day partnered by John Durkan, a 26-year-old amateur with plans to be a trainer. Durkan never got to race that day. Three and a half years later he was diagnosed with leukaemia and he died in January 1998.
The 1993 Grand National was an expensive debacle and an embarrassment but in the end it was also just the horse race that wasn't.
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image: © Paolo Camera