LONDON - The horses were being led from their stables. The jockeys were about to file out of the weighing room. The 60,000 spectators, including Princess Anne, were preparing yesterday to watch Britain's most-storied and most-wagered horse race.
And then the 150th Grand National steeplechase at Aintree racecourse in Liverpool was called off on account 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 being a telephone call to a Liverpool-area hospital including an authenticated IRA code warning.
Fans had to leave their vehicles behind, stranding many for the night while police checked the 20,000 cars and hundreds of buses at the racetrack for hidden explosives.
A single stableboy was left in charge of the prized horses.
The Grand National at Aintree racetrack attracted a worldwide TV audience of 400 million. Some $120 million had been wagered on the 38 horses. No new date was set for the 4 1/2-mile race, which has a $400,000 purse.
The evacuation, which began only a half-hour before the race was to start, went smoothly and there were no injuries. Many fans abandoned tote bags and shopping bags in haste. The race itself was canceled just as it was about to go off.
Police said there were two coded telephone warnings, typical of IRA operations. Once the stands were vacated, they carried out controlled explosions of suspicious packages. No explosives were found.
With thousands of vehicles being held for searches, taxi companies were inundated with calls and extra buses were marshaled to take people the six miles into Liverpool. Makeshift accommodations were set up in local schools and sports centers.
The cancellation of the race 45 minutes before it was to start - akin to the postponement of a Super Bowl or a World Series game - 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 interest of ordinary people." There has been no claim of responsibility for the bomb alert, 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 apparently has stepped up its terror campaign during the last 10 days, presumably in a bid to push the stalled Northern Irish peace process to the top of the political agenda.
Major train lines were paralyzed by a March 26 explosion along the London-to-Manchester line at Wilmslow. On Thursday, two bombs were planted at a highway interchange outside Birmingham. The IRA claimed responsibility for the incident, and roads were closed for 30 hours, causing huge traffic jams.