It all depends how you like your fairy tales. OK, so we would have loved the retiring Tony ‘AP’ McCoy, 20 years a champion, to have won his last Grand National on Shutthefrontdoor, owned by his long-time patron J.P. McManus, jump racing’s biggest benefactor. But fate rarely reads the full script and this year’s National went instead to the talented Many Clouds, owned by Trevor Hemmings, another who has poured a fortune into racing. Many Clouds was trained in Lambourn by the generous-hearted Oliver Sherwood, a man claimed truly as a friend by more people in racing than anyone else I know and who has in his choice of riders and assistants over the years launched a whole series of racing careers. Until the past two years Oliver was struggling to get back to the big time and he had only had five National runners over the years, none of which had completed the course. ‘I have never doubted what I could do but I haven’t before had the ammunition to go to war.’
For good measure Leighton Aspell, riding his second National winner in two years, had himself ‘retired’ for nearly two years back in 2007, so watching two supreme horsemen in Leighton and Paddy Brennan aboard Tom George’s Saint Are fight out an epic finish with no equine or human casualties was quite enough of a fairy tale for me.
I first started reporting the National for the Liverpool Daily Post in the 1960s and it gets better every year. After this one I woke at 3 a.m. not to worry about the Waitrose wine bills but simply because the images kept replaying so vividly in my mind. The Cheltenham Festival, the ultimate test in every department, is the event for jump racing’s core aficionados. But the Grand National meeting, superbly organised by a team who could be trusted to run the Olympics, Trooping the Colour or the ultimate elephant-bedecked production of Aida, has become a national icon. With its over-the-top razzmatazz of red-coated regimentals guarding the trophies, rock bands getting the crowds bopping in the Aintree Pavilion, a tented village for fashionistas and a sentimental crowd who visit Red Rum’s grave and strew Polo mints, it is not just a great sporting event but a unique kind of national carnival.
It is also the best Girls’ Day Out in the country. I used to mutter about the local Sheilas tottering on precipice heels with eyelashes a tightrope walker could mount, and dressed whether their figures encouraged it or not as variants of the Sugar Plum Fairy, a Baby Doll bride or Cruella de Vil, but I was wrong. They may never see a horse but on Ladies’ Day at least they are an essential and exuberant ingredient of the whole spectacle. This year’s most obvious fashion trend, the skin-tight-swathed derriere, gave a new meaning to the old hunting term of ‘a good seat’. On Merseyside the zip industry is alive and thriving.
There was so much more to feast on. Tony McCoy’s last winning mount at Aintree, Don Cossack, trained by the building storm-wave that is Gordon Elliott, looked like a future winner of the Gold Cup. Jonathan or ‘JJ ‘ Burke, his profile in the saddle reminiscent of the young Adrian Maguire, introduced his talent on Sizing Granite and when amateur Sam Waley-Cohen won the Topham Chase on Rajdhani Express it took his total of wins over the big, scary National fences to six, a record unmatched by any professional. Modestly Sam explained that with one of the five races each year over the Grand National fences restricted to amateurs in the Foxhunters, he got more practice than the pros: ‘You actively ride the fences as opposed to thinking about tactics. That’s what an amateur often does, so the course does play to how I ride.’ Self-deprecation is another of our valued traditions.
Rajdhani Express was trained by Nicky Henderson who also won the stayers hurdle with Whisper and the Novices Hurdle with Thienval. Stable jockey Barry Geraghty was out injured so Nicky put up stable conditionals Nico de Boinville on Whisper and Jeremiah McGrath on Thienval. As well as de Boinville’s Gold Cup win on Coneygree, two more of the Seven Barrows team, Nigel Tinkler and David Bass, had Cheltenham Festival winners this year, proving that as well as doing the business with good horses Nicky has a rare eye for talent in the saddle too. ‘They’re a fantastic bunch of guys and though they are playing second fiddle to Barry they are all going the right way,’ he told me. ‘Sometimes I feel like a football manager telling somebody on the subs’ bench, “You are not playing.” I have to make some very difficult decisions which I hate because I am very fond of them and they deserve every opportunity they get.’
For them there will be more opportunities. For AP, the first to congratulate Leighton Aspell, only a few more. But at least now we know we can give him the send-off he deserves at Sandown on 28 April.
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