Aintree recall Nigel Payne to steady nerves ahead of Grand National

Aintree turned to a safe pair of hands on Thursday when appointing Nigel Payne to organise their press and communications ahead of what is seen as a crucial running of the Grand National in April.

Payne was press officer for 31 years until 2006 and has been brought back at what he admitted was “a delicate time” following widespread calls for the race to be altered radically or banned after the equine deaths that blighted the event in 2011 and 2012.

Senior figures at Jockey Club Racecourses, which runs Aintree, were reported to be dismayed at the media coverage in the past two years and replaced Aintree’s managing director Julian Thick, appointing John Baker as north-west regional director with the Liverpool course uppermost in his portfolio.

Following the sudden resignation of Emma Owen as head of PR in November, Baker has made the decision to recall Payne to take charge until the completion of the 2013 running of the National.

Payne said his first task would be to streamline operations. “I was there last April and in my opinion there were too many people and when you have too many people there are too many involved to reach a quick decision.

“We must finalise a strategy so that if something untoward happens we have a very strict routine in place. There were superb welfare ideas introduced in 2011, such as the washing down of horses after the race, but they weren’t communicated and my role will be to ensure that we inform everybody of anything put in place for the benefit of horses or riders.”

The National suffered another blow in November when John Smith’s announced it would not be renewing its backing of the race after this year’s running but Payne, chief executive of the Horseracing Sponsors Association, is adamant Aintree will have no problem finding a suitable replacement.

“[The National] is one of the hottest properties in racing sponsorship. I think Aintree will find a sponsor quite soon,” he said, adding that contrary to adverse comment within the racing industry, he would not be dismayed if a bookmaker were to step in to fill the void.

“I would be delighted if a bookmaker were to sign. If you can’t get a sponsor from within the industry then you do have a problem,” he added, pointing to the example of Ladbrokes’ promotion of the St Leger in recent years.

The trainer David Bridgwater is hoping The Giant Bolster can get his season back on track in the Argento Chase at Cheltenham at the end of the month.

Runner-up in last season’s Cheltenham Gold Cup and a highly creditable third on his return to action in the Betfair Chase at Haydock, the eight-year-old was considered a major challenger for the King George at Kempton on Boxing Day.

However, a couple of early jumping errors set the tone for a disappointing display and he was eventually pulled up by Tony McCoy.

Bridgwater said: “He’s grand, there’s not a bother on him. It was just one of those days at Kempton and a number of things went wrong. The original plan was to go to the Peterborough Chase but that was off and we ended up at Kempton and things didn’t work out.

“I’m sure he’ll be fine and we’ll head back to the Argento [on 26 January]. I think everyone would like a bit better ground than what we have at the moment.”