The Virtual Grand National on a TV in a Derbyshire household (Scott Wilson/PA)Bookmakers are to donate over £2.6million to NHS charities from profits on the Virtual Grand National, as it was revealed almost five million people tuned in to watch the race on Saturday afternoon.

With the real thing cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic and racing on hold until at least the end of April, the computer simulation captured the imagination in a special programme broadcast on ITV at 5pm, with the race run at 5.15pm to replicate what would have been the actual start time.

It proved to be a virtual epic, with the Christian Williams-trained Potters Corner (18-1) clinging on under teenage rider Jack Tudor to hold off the challenge of Walk In The Mill on the run from the Elbow.

ITV said almost a third of all viewers watched the race, with the show peaking at 4.8million – 30 per cent of the overall television audience. Across the programme, an average of 4.3m – a 28 per cent audience share – were watching.

Last year’s virtual race – run as a precursor to the main event – was watched by 737k people and the actual Grand National by nearly 10m.

Bookmakers had helped boost interest by announcing all profits would be donated to NHS Charities Together, the umbrella organisation which represents over 140 NHS charities.

The Betting and Gaming Council – which will also donate profits from bets placed in Ireland to Irish charities, including the Irish Red Cross – hopes further money may be raised from successful backers donating some of their winnings.

BGC chief executive Michael Dugher said: “I am proud that so many BGC members, up and down the country, are supporting in so many different ways the national effort to combat COVID-19, including here by contributing all of their race profits to NHS Charities Together.

“I’m sorry we couldn’t have the real Grand National to find out if Potters Corner would have won or whether it would have been an historic three in a row for Tiger Roll, but at this time of need the nation used the day to come together and back our NHS.

“It’s also fantastic that the Jockey Club will be donating 10,000 tickets to the NHS and social care sector in Merseyside for the first day of the 2021 Randox Health Grand National Festival at Aintree.”

Coral’s David Stevens said: “We had no idea how popular the Virtual Grand National would be as it was a completely unique situation, with the virtual version replacing the real thing, but throughout Saturday it became apparent that millions of people were still having their annual flutter on this famous race.

“The average stake per bet worked out at just over £2, which showed this virtual National really hit the spot in terms of providing a fun, one-off betting opportunity for so many people, and most importantly, all those small bets added up to a fantastic donation to NHS Charities Together.

“We are all seeing on a daily basis the amazing work the NHS are doing right now, so it’s entirely fitting that they are the real winners of this year’s virtual Grand National.”

After a Welsh National and Virtual National, will it be Aintree glory for real next year for Christian Williams and Jack Tudor?
After a Welsh National and Virtual National, will it be Aintree glory for real next year for Christian Williams and Jack Tudor?(David Davies/PA)

A spokesman for William Hill said: “The virtual National exceeded all expectations and we could not be happier that the industry has pulled together and raised so much for such a worthy cause.”

Vale of Glamorgan-based Williams said immediately after the race: “I’m delighted, it’s great and great to cheer everyone up in tough times – I think even people from outside of racing were tuned in.

“It was something for people to cheer on, people are stuck in their houses and it probably got a good viewing. It was something to watch together and have a bit of banter leading up to it.”

Programme makers Carm Productions were delighted with the broadcast, saying: “What an incredible few days it has been. We first aired the Virtual Grand National in 2017, and we feel honoured that it has been able to stand in for the Grand National at this difficult time.

“Let’s hope it has entertained racegoers and the wider public. We also hope that it has been able to help raise funds to support the NHS at this important time. We would also like to thank ITV and the Jockey Club of their ongoing help and support.”