Welsh Grand National day at Chepstow could not have had a better climax than the big race. After slogging three miles four furlongs on heavy, clinging ground, three horses came to the last with a chance: leading was the Irish-trained Glenquest ridden by Peter Buchanan, in second was Benvolio ridden for Paul Nicholls by Sam Twiston-Davies and third, at that point, his chance seemingly gone when the other two had passed him two out, was Emperor’s Choice ridden for Venetia Williams by Aidan Coleman. The crowd were on tiptoe roaring all three home as first Benvolio battled past a tiring Glenquest and then Coleman somehow galvanised Emperor’s Choice into one final heave, which took him past Benvolio to snatch victory by a head in the photo-finish.
Typifying jump racing’s nature, Aidan and Sam held hands for several strides after the line: the two good friends had contested every stride to the finish with the last sinew in their bodies, but each was ready from the moment the post was passed to give praise to the winner. No excuses, no whingeing, no handbag-swinging in this arena, just plain straightforward sportsmanship.
Venetia Williams is something of an enigma. Although often eye-catchingly dressed and always polite, she is cool and reserved in her demeanour. On this occasion, however, she was happy to wear her heart on her sleeve. In fact, I have rarely seen her so excited as when she came to greet her gutsy winner, who had led for much of the race and then come again at the death. She and the owners had had a box in the gods and she admitted that they had been cheering on Emperor’s Choice so loudly they could have been heard the other side of the Severn. As Emperor’s Choice nuzzled his ‘lad’, grandmother Elaine Mucklow, his trainer confessed that, when she had seen him leading, ‘I reckoned that they were going too slow and that he’d get out-speeded turning for home, which indeed he did before stamina came into play.’
Aston Martin driver Venetia loves speedy motors, but if you have a slow horse there is no better home for it than her Herefordshire stable. There were a few top-grade horses in the early days but in recent years there have been few stars of the sort that win Grade One races at the Cheltenham Festival. There is, however, no one in the land who trains and places genuine staying chasers better. Few regular racegoers would be able to name many of the inmates of her yard, but what all the serious punters among them know is that on winter ground there is no one more likely to win a series of big handicaps.
Venetia Williams was once knocked unconscious riding a 200–1 shot in the Grand National and her riding career ended when a fortnight later she broke her neck riding at Worcester. Her strength as a trainer is her attention to detail and the fact that she never gives up on a horse. She had her revenge on the Aintree course by training 100–1 shot Mon Mome to win the Grand National and Emperor’s Choice was her second winner of the Welsh version. I am sure there will be more.
Although the buildings are outdated, I like the Chepstow track and the unpretentious, largely Welsh Chepstow crowd who, stoked up with ‘Cwm Rhondda’ before the big race, had a cracking day. Not only was the big race won by someone who trains close enough to be an honorary Welshwoman, there were also two wins for the Pembrokeshire Welsh trainer Peter Bowen with Ghost River and Awaywiththegreys, and his son Sean, nominated by this column as a rider to follow, scored his first-ever treble with those two and the 20–1 shot Quincy Des Pictons.
But if the Welsh had a good day I didn’t. From the Severn Bridge I sat in a traffic jam for more than an hour en route to the course, missing the first two races. At one stage I passed a road sign saying ‘Badgers for two miles’ and I was not surprised: on Welsh National day tunnelling is probably the only hope. On my eventual arrival, I was waved past the car park by stewards who then gallingly reopened it, I saw through my rear mirror, for the next 20 cars behind me. I finished up parking six furlongs down the course as the runners went to post for the third and couldn’t get a signal from my mobile as I attempted to phone in a bet on the 8–1 Awaywiththegreys. My selection for the big race was Emma Lavelle’s Shotgun Paddy. Alas, typical of Emma’s luck this season Shotgun Paddy clouted the second and although Leighton Aspell somehow clung on, their chance had gone. I shall hope, though, to recover my losses by supporting for the rest of this season Nigel Twiston-Davies’s three-year-old hurdler Bristol de Mai, who was enormously impressive on his British debut. Had he run earlier this season, he would have been in the Twelve to Follow.
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