IT WAS Charlo who lifted the mood by that hurdle at Hexham on Sunday, Charlo and his straightforward chat cutting through the horror of the moment.
Ryan Mania, his head still spinning from winning the National, had taken a fall off Stagecoach Jasper in a mundane handicap in a parallel universe from Aintree and was face down in the grass, motionless and fearful. For 30 long seconds he thought he might be paralysed. A tarpaulin screen was put up around him. An air ambulance hovered into view. At the scene, among others, were his pregnant girlfriend Edwina and his agent Bruce Jeffrey and, after a while, came Charlo, his valet, the man who keeps his boots shiny, his breeches clean and his silks as silky as can be.
We’re in Jeffrey’s place on Friday morning and the two of them are chatting about Hexham and a narrowly-avoided disaster. “It wasn’t the worst fall I ever had,” says Mania, “but it was the kick I got from the horse behind me that made it potentially serious. Horses aren’t thick. When a jockey falls in front of them they’ll try to miss you, but this one had no respect. He proper stood on me and then went on to win the race.”
“Do you remember Charlo talking to you?” asks Jeffrey.
“Kinda,” replies Mania.
“Everybody’s looking at you and greetin’ and Charlo comes in and says ‘Ryan, Ryan, it’s Charlo. Ryan, can you move your fingers?’ And you said ‘aye’. ‘Ryan, can you move your toes’. And you moved your toes. And then he says, ‘Ryan, there’s f***-all wrong with you, so!’ Hehehe. I mean, you were on the morphine and the chopper had landed to take you away. It looked a really, really serious situation but Charlo was priceless. The boy from the paramedics got out of the helicopter and says ‘Can you tell me your name’ and Charlo pipes up: ‘He’s Ryan Mania, he’s just won the f***ing Grand National!’ Honestly, that scene will stay with me for the rest of my life.”
It’s in keeping with a surreal story that, during a two-hour conversation with Mania in Galashiels on Friday morning, it wasn’t just his National-winning mount Auroras Encore that was mentioned nor the handicap hurdler that put him in hospital 24 hours later, but also Gerard Butler and Hermione Granger, Alan Carr off the telly and Duncan James from the boy band Blue.
The 23-year-old jockey, as witty as he is unassuming, is talking about what had happened to him in the past week and how, really, it’s not going to change his life the way everybody has been saying it will. Mania does a nice line in self-mocking humour. He says that winning the National has seemingly done nothing for his prospects of getting a tweet from Hermione, or actress Emma Watson as she is in real life. Big fan of Emma, is Mania. “I can’t even get a tweet out of Alan Carr or Duncan James,” he says. “On the night before the National, Carr did his television programme all about the race and it was great fun. I was sitting at home and I was loving it. He had this celebrity sweepstake and all these showbiz people were given a horse each, for charity, I think. Jonathan Ross and that kind of thing. Duncan James got Auroras Encore so I tweeted him straight away. Him and Alan Carr. I told them that I’d be doing the steering the next day. Got nothing back. Still haven’t. I know my place.”
Mania talks about his appearance on Daybreak on ITV last week, the fact that they wanted him to go to London to do it but that he couldn’t on account of his homecoming in Gala. They didn’t tell him that had he made the trip south he’d have shared a couch with Butler, his fellow Scot and one of his favourite actors. “In years to come when people ask me what the greatest regret of my career is I’ll tell them it was the time I blew a chance of meeting Gerard Butler. Aye. Missed a trick there.”
Mania’s story is one that has captivated people, not just because he won the National on a horse that everybody had discounted but because of the drama that followed it the day after. His phone has been buzzing ever since. Jeffrey has been going around with his mobile practically lodged to his ear from the minute Auroras crossed the finishing line last Saturday. All of this is good, but barmy. “It’s been a whirlwind,” says Mania. “It’s a bit like an out-of-body experience. I only got a chance to sit down and watch the National on Thursday and, on the run-in from the Elbow, I was still expecting something to come and beat me.”
On the morning of the National, little was said in the car heading south. No dreaming, no what ifs, no fantasy of any kind. Mania slept for part of the trip, his body still tender from a fall on Thursday, a mishap at the last in a handicap chase at Aintree. His father drove, Edwina was there, too. Never once did any of them talk about the possibility of winning. Nobody connected with Auroras ever did. Not Mania, not Sue and Harvey Smith, the trainers, not the owners. It was the rider’s first shot at the National and the measure of his dreams was just to jump around. “Had I finished last I’d have been happy. The only target, really, was to finish.”
How could it have been anything loftier? Auroras was 66-1 on the day and there was good reason for that, despite him having finished second in last year’s Scottish National. “In fairness, you couldn’t have him the way he was running.” His form had deserted him in the past year. After Ayr, he ran at Perth, clattered through a fence and fell. Mania blamed himself and phoned Harvey Smith to say so. Harvey wouldn’t hear of it. That’s one of the things that Mania loves about the Smiths. They back their pilots, they support them when things go pear-shaped.
Things didn’t get any better after Perth. “Back in February we went to Doncaster and we got a whore of a fall at the second fence. He took off way too early. He thought he had wings. He’s landed in the middle of the ditch and the both of us have hit the ground very hard. We were lucky to walk away – and that was just two months before the National. Then we ran at Kelso in March and I was very disappointed with him. I think I did finish but probably shouldn’t have. So it wasn’t looking great at that point.”
Hence, the 66s. It was only a fortnight before the National that Mania noticed a change in Auroras. The hardening ground perked him up. He schooled him over fences one day and, all of a sudden, it was like he was sitting on a different animal. “He was looking, I dunno, shiny. He was in the form of his life but we never suspected he was in the kind of form to win a National.”
He wasn’t mentioned in the preamble, but racing has talked about little else in the aftermath. The morning after Aintree, Mania travelled the three hours from Galashiels to the Smith yard in Bingley, west Yorkshire. Auroras was on the walker, bucking and squealing like a fresh horse that had barely had a gallop the day before. “We call him Ru-Ru in the yard and I thought to myself ‘Ru-Ru, the Scottish National is in a week’s time and, if you don’t want to run in it, you’d better start acting tired’.” Then Hexham dawned and the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle beckoned.
“There was a guy in the bed opposite me, screaming and going on. Even the doctors were telling him to quieten down. I thought ‘There better be something wrong with you all the noise you’re making’. There were journalists camped outside the hospital for the whole two days. They got inside at one point but the security kicked them out. The clerk of the course from Hexham came to see me and he texted me later to say that, on his way back to his car, two reporters jumped him and asked him did he know Ryan Mania. All of it was bizarre.
“When I came out of the hospital there was a load of people there. Cameras and that. You see it on the news when people are leaving court and the cameras follow them down the street and that’s what it was like. I was walking to the car and they were snapping away and I was like ‘What are they doing? This is just stupid’. My dad phoned me and said there’s a journalist at the door and you really don’t know what to say. None of us were ready for this. We didn’t know what to say or do. One minute you’re getting on with your life quietly and then you win a race and things go crazy.”
In hospital there was time for contemplation and Mania thought of two people he knew along the way who are no longer here. Peter Monteith, the trainer who gave him his break, and jockey Campbell Gillies, the friend with whom he shared many a weighing room, and who died last year in a swimming pool accident on holiday in Corfu. “In the last week I’ve become emotional only twice. Once, when I saw all the people who’d turned out in Galashiels to welcome me home and also when somebody mentioned Campbell. I think about him five times a day. There’s a few of us who, every time we go in a weighing room, we think about him. He was the life and soul. Some people might think that I’m just saying that, but I’m not. He was a very big character to lose. He wasn’t just some quiet lad who sat in the corner. He’s really missed.
“And Peter, well, I wouldn’t be where I am now if it wasn’t for him. The biggest thing any trainer can do is give you the opportunities and, if something goes wrong, give you a pat on the back and say ‘We’ll get them next time’. He filled you with confidence. Nobody knew and nothing has ever come out [about his suicide in 2010]. He was a joker. There wasn’t a day that went by when he wasn’t doing a prank. It’s bizarre and very sad to think that somebody like him who was full of life was thinking along those lines.”
So many thoughts in one week. So much to take in. Tomorrow, Mania hopes to get the all-clear to ride in the Scottish National at the weekend, either on Auroras – he’s been hammered by the handicapper post-Aintree and may not run – or another of the Smith team, Fill The Power. Later in the week, another hospital visit, Edwina being the focus this time. “We have a scan to find out the sex of the baby, which is very exciting. We’re due in September. I think it’ll be a boy but, if it’s a girl, we’re tempted to call it Aurora. But then, when it pops out, we might have other ideas. We might look at her and say ‘Nah, she doesn’t look like a National-winning horse’. Hope it doesn’t anyway. As much as I love Auroras...”
Together they made history last weekend. Thank heavens that what happened on Sunday hasn’t denied Mania the chance to revel in it.