LONDON -- The horses were ready to leave the stables. The jockeys were about to file out of the weighing room. The 70,000 spectators, including Princess Anne, were preparing yesterday to watch Britain's most-storied and most-wagered horse race.
And then the 158th Grand National steeplechase at Aintree racecourse near Liverpool was called off because of a bomb threat, apparently by the Irish Republican Army.
Police ordered the evacuation of the race site after receiving two messages about a bomb, the first a telephone call to a Liverpool-area hospital that involved an authenticated IRA code warning. Tens of thousands of spectators poured onto the racecourse as police cleared the stands; many were stranded overnight in the Liverpool area after authorities sealed off parking lots.
Police exploded suspect packages at the racecourse.
The cancellation of the race 45 minutes before it was to start -- akin to the postponement of a Super Bowl or the Kentucky Derby -- outraged Britons and added to the jitters caused by IRA bomb scares in recent days.
Prime Minister John Major condemned the bomb scare as "cynical and detestable," saying it demonstrated the IRA's "contempt and disregard for the lives and interests of ordinary people." No claim of responsibility was made, but Major said he had no doubt the IRA was to blame.
Labor leader Tony Blair said he was "horrified" by the threat, saying the IRA "can never blackmail the British people with violence."
Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Northern Ireland secretary, said "it is hard to imagine any action, short of murdering or injuring people, that will cause more outrage against the IRA in England, and in Ireland as well."
With the British general election campaign in full swing, the IRA has apparently stepped up its terror campaign during the past 10 days, presumably in a bid to make the stalled Northern Irish peace process the top issue.
Key railroad lines were paralyzed by an explosion March 26 along the London-to-Manchester line at Wilmslow. On Thursday, two bombs were planted at a busy highway interchange outside Birmingham in central England. The IRA claimed responsibility, and roads were closed for 30 hours, causing huge traffic jams.
Friday's evening rush hour in London was also chaotic with five major train stations closed because of bomb threats.
The IRA ended a 17-month cease-fire in February 1996 with an explosion in an east London business district that left two dead and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. In June, an explosion in Manchester's main shopping district injured more than 200 people.
Yesterday's race cancellation was apparently a new wrinkle from the IRA playbook, as nearly every part of British and Irish society takes an interest in a good horse race. And the Grand National, first run on Feb. 26, 1839, is the biggest race of all.
Aintree officials said they hoped the event in Northwest England could be rescheduled for tomorrow afternoon.
Forty horses were to start yesterday's race. Bets were taken at the track and at betting shops, and up to 400 million viewers were expected to watch the race on television worldwide.
Pub Date: 4/06/97