Grand National Festival to begin

This Is Local London: Staff prepare the track at Aintree ahead of the 2013 Grand National Meeting Staff prepare the track at Aintree ahead of the 2013 Grand National Meeting

The 2013 John Smith's Grand National Festival will begin today.

Millions worldwide are expected to have a flutter and tune in on Saturday as dozens of runners and riders contest the world-famous steeplechase at Aintree Racecourse in Liverpool.

Tens of thousands of punters are expected at Thursday's opener, named Grand Opening Day, which boasts seven races including the prestigious John Smith's Aintree Hurdle, which has been switched from its traditional Saturday slot and has a record prize fund of £200,000.

Away from the action on the course, racegoers can expect live music including performances from chart-topping girl group The Saturdays and electronic string quartet Escala. Friday is Ladies' Day - a firm fixture on the North West social calendar, when the region's ladies dress to impress. The event attracts such famous faces as Wags Coleen Rooney and Alex Gerrard and the actress Jennifer Ellison.

On Saturday, the world's most talented horsemen and women will gather to compete in the John Smith's Grand National steeplechase. Watched by 600 million people worldwide, the Grand National is the most high-profile event on the horse racing calendar.

Forty runners and riders will contest the race over 30 fences covering four miles and four furlongs. This year's event will be the first broadcast on Channel 4 after the broadcaster won the rights to televise the meeting.

Weather forecasters have predicted a sunny but chilly few days in Liverpool. Temperatures are not expected to rise much above 9C (48F). Matt Dobson, a forecaster with MeteoGroup, the weather division of the Press Association, said: "It's odds on to stay dry in the next few days but it will be windy and cold so people should wrap up warm and hold on to their hats. There's been a lot of dry wind since the recent snow so I'd expect the ground to have dried out by now."

Animal cruelty organisations have called on the public to shun the race and avoid placing bets. Last year's Grand National was marred by the death of two horses, According To Pete and Synchronised. Members of Fight Against Animal Cruelty in Europe will stage their now traditional demonstration outside Aintree on Saturday to call for the sport to be banned. Chairman Tony Moore said: "In the past 16 years 18 horses have died in the Grand National. For this year's race, further minor changes to the fences have been made. What is needed is a radical rethink for the safety of the horses."

Speaking to the Radio Times this week, Grand National jockey Katie Walsh defended the sport, saying that the horses are treated better than "many children". Walsh will be riding Seabass, an early favourite to win the big race, alongside her brother, Ruby, who is due to ride On His Own.

Merseyside Police said 150,000 racegoers are expected to descend on Aintree over the next three days and urged people to expect security checks and to arrive in plenty of time and not to bring unnecessary bags.

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