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Tonight's Grand National replaces real animals for a pack of digital horses


It's been on everyone's mind. As Britain steps deeper into lockdown and the world grapples with the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, we've all been asking: "But what about the horse-racing?". In lieu of watching fourty powerful equines tearing down a racetrack tonight, the nation's telly viewers will instead find themselves watching The Virtual Grand National - a simulated recreation that's safer for viewers, riders, and (let's face it) the horses themselves.

Developers Inspired Entertainment have been running simulated virtual sports on their own channels for years. But with Covid-19 making a live show irresponsible and unworkable, The Virtual Grand National has wrangled a TV spot on ITV tonight at 5pm.

Cover image for YouTube video

As the one horse-racing event the UK gets really into, The Grand National is an absurd annual event. Every April, the last vestiges of the landed gentry descend on a racecourse outside Liverpool, donning garish hats more expensive than my monthly rent to watch horses slam into hedges for ten minutes. A deeply controversial thing, to say the least.

The Grand National is one of the biggest gambling events of the year, for one, pushing addiction concerns at a time when the NHS is already stretched thin. It's also an absolutely brutal affair for the animals involved. Racetracks are deathtraps, forcing crowds of horses together at breakneck speeds down routes littered with dangerous obstacles to traverse. Horses are regularly put down after injuries sustained on the track - if they're not immediately dying on impact from fumbling 6ft jumps.

Ah, British tradition.

The Virtual Grand National doesn't remove problem gambling from the equation. But its digital recreation does, at least, escape some of the pomp and all that animal cruelty. Each iteration of the VGN refines on the painstaking simulation of pastoral jockeying, using stats tracked from each horse's recent performance to help drive its race. Mud conditions, pack dynamics, and track-side repair and recovery crews are all tracked in a meticulously mundane manner.

The simulation even accounts for crashes, all without having to kill a horse or hospitalise riders. It doesn't simulate the weird tradition of Ladies Day, mind, but I s'pose you could boot up The Sims if you really, desperately miss that moment of deeply British class anxiety.

Sports industries have been hit particularly hard by the global pandemic, and the Grand National isn't the first to try and salvage itself with a digital incarnation. Tomorrow, five Formula 1 drivers will compete in the Virtual Grand Prix - racing on F1 2019's Albert Park track in lieu of the scheduled Vietnam location.

Stateside, NHL and NBA have found themselves run on their videogame analogues. EA have been posting the results of their own season of ice hockey through NHL 20, while broadcasters like NBC Sports Washington have aired NBA 2K20's simulated basketball games on live telly.

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Natalie Clayton avatar

Natalie Clayton


Writes news when everyone else is asleep, sometimes