WHEN they weren’t busy worrying obsessively about the potential mortality rate of this Grand National, the pundits were busy predicting all sorts of firsts and rarities for the world’s greatest steeplechase.
Katie Walsh on Seabass was the most regularly trailed: could she beat her brother to become the first woman to win the National? And what about the bevy of Welsh horses: could the highly-fancied Cappa Bleu or Teaforthree – or any from the trio of Saint Are, Always Waining or Mumbles Head – become the first horse from the Principality to win the National since Kirkland in 1905?
Yet no-one paid much attention to the trio of “Jock jocks” (or Scottish jockeys). And why would they? Ryan Mania from Galashiels was riding a horse that was available at 130-1 on Betfair an hour before the race started, and neither Hawick’s Wilson Renwick on the 100-1 Tarquinius or Sue Smith’s stable jockey in Bingley Peter Buchanan on 80-1 Mr Moonshine were noted outsiders.
But the greatest scripts are those which are least expected, and that is what unfolded at Aintree yesterday as Mania romped home on Auroras Encore by a remarkable nine lengths, leaving the Welsh duo of Cappa Bleu (12-1) and Teaforthree (10-1) trailing in his wake, with Oscar Time fourth and Rare Bob fifth. Walsh, riding the 11-2 favourite Seabass, ended the race a distant onlooker but at least she fared better than her brother Ruby, who fell at Valentine’s Brook on the much-fancied On His Own. The biggest name in the field, Tony McCoy was unseated when his mount, Colbert Station, blundered at The Chair.
It was a victory that was as stunning as it was unexpected, and which made Yorkshire-based Sue Smith – the wife of former showjumper Harvey Smith, who described this as “superb, the best moment of my career” – only the third woman to train a Grand National winner after Jenny Pitman (Corbiere and Royal Athlete) and Venetia Williams (Mon Mome). The laurels of victory, however, belong largely to Grand National debutant Mania. His ride was an extraordinary combination of chutzpah and guts as he took the 66-1 outsider past both of the Welsh frontrunners with a huge leap over the 30th and final fence before stretching away in emphatic fashion over the closing 494 yards, the longest finish in racing and a straight on which countless leaders – think Devon Loch in 1956, Crisp in 1973 and Sunnyhillboy in 2012 – have had victory snatched away.
Not for Mania and Auroras Encore though, as they finished the strongest of all the remaining horses. It was a canny performance that exemplified the maxim that a National winner should survive the first half of the race and race the second half. “There’s no words to describe it, I got a dream ride all the way – I couldn’t believe my luck,” said Mania immediately after crossing the finishing line. “I couldn’t fault the old horse. He was second in the Scottish National last year and I thought I should stay loyal to him and thank God I did. I never really had an anxious moment, he made a couple of mistakes, that’s all.
“It’s unbelievable, he gave me such a good ride. I knew the ground was right for him and hoped everything else was. He stayed down the middle and had a bit of luck in running. He didn’t have a lot of weight and that helped, too.
“I knew he was capable, even though he hadn’t been running well. This is always his time of year, but you couldn’t be confident.
“He’s such a grand little horse, you can ride him anyway you like. I just feel sorry for the previous owners, who were wonderful and sold him because of ill health.”
One owner’s bad luck is another’s opportunity, though, and Auroras Encore’s success would have been popular at the Liverpool course given that one of the four winning owners was 78-year-old Jim Beaumont, who was born on Merseyside and worked in the city’s Adelphi Hotel as a bellboy at the age of 14. The win is undoubtedly a career high point for the 23-year-old Borderer from a horse-mad family who learned his trade riding Shetland ponies before moving up to the Common Ridings and then from the age of 12 riding hunters for Galashiels point-to-point trainer Bill Hughes.
When he burst onto the scene at Ayr in 2008, displaying incredible maturity in appalling conditions to notch a double for Midlothian trainer Peter Monteith, he looked like a star in the making, yet progress has not always come easy and at one stage in 2011 he was so dispirited that he handed back his licence. Fortunately, he changed his mind, lured back by a love of the track. “Two years ago I gave up for six months because the rides had dried up, but Sue and Harvey took me in,” said Mania. “I realise this will change my life, but I can’t go too mad tonight because I am at Hexham tomorrow.”
Mania’s victory on the 11-year-old Auroras Encore provides a kitemark for the Scottish National, in which the pair were beaten by a head last year after capsizing at the first fence of the Scottish National in 2010 and missing the whole of 2011. Since then a succession of seven disappointing results, including three failures to finish and poor performances at Warwick, Kelso and Doncaster, have seen the horse drop 6lbs in weight, a factor which proved to be crucial yesterday.
He could now have another crack at the Scottish National on 20 April and aim to become only the second ever horse to do the Aintree-Ayr double and follow in the hoofsteps of the legendary Red Rum’s 1974 feat. Beaumont said: “We would like to go for the Scottish National, if Sue says we can.”
Harvey Smith added: “If he comes out of the race and says ‘come on now’, we’ll have a run around Scotland as well.”
If the manner and ease of Auroras Encore’s triumph were a major surprise yesterday, so was the effectiveness of the arrangements which had been put in place to ensure that there was no repeat of the fatalities which marred the race in 2011 and 2012. Indeed, with two horses already dead during this year’s festival – one from a heart attack which could have happened anywhere, but the other a fall at the 15th in which the strong-jumping Little Josh broke his shoulder – there was an almost existential threat to the 174-year-old race’s future, and so radical surgery was employed.
Ostensibly the fences look the same but as their core is now made of plastic rather than wood they are far softer on horses which fail to rise to the challenge. That was already in evidence on Thursday in the Fox Hunters Chase when horses which crashed through the middle of the spruce managed to proceed slowly but otherwise unimpaired.
The other change which had a notable effect was the decision to run the race over less than the classic distance of four and a half miles by moving the start closer to the first fence. Many traditionalists doubted that would stop the bunching that has often seen carnage in the opening jump as horses hurtle pell-mell across the Melling Road, but it worked a treat. The result was that there were no fallers and no jockeys were unseated over the first seven fences, including Becher’s Brook. Although that was never likely to remain the case, there were far fewer fallers than usual and all the horses retruned safely. Aintree and racing breathed a collective sigh of relief.
It also lauded a rags-to-riches story of triumph against the odds. Instead of the continual dripfeed of bad news and the gradual ratcheting up of pressure, here was a Cinderella story to treasure forever.
Mania’s triumph capped a remarkable week for Scottish racing that began on Thursday when Hawick teenager Jamie Hamilton won the Fox Hunters Chase on the 100-1 outsider Tartan Snow. Not only was that horse ridden by a Scot, it was also trained owned by one in Selkirk trainer-cum-sheep farmer Stuart Coultherd. Scots wha’hey!