Parading winners are not infrequent in Ditcheat, with four Cheltenham Gold Cups being carried back over the years, but trainer Paul Nicholls was overwhelmed by the increased level of attention created by his first Aintree hero.
By the time Neptune Collonges made his late lunchtime appearance, and delayed the arrival of owner John Hales by helicopter, a crowd of three or four hundred had gathered on the road outside the local pub.
Members of Nicholls’ staff, sensing a hazy feeling of deja vu in returning to the Manor House Inn only a few hours after they left, bolstered the numbers along with camera crews, but there were many unfamiliar faces too, and it was said one couple had travelled from Cheshire to soak up the atmosphere.
“It’s fantastic to see how many people have come along. There are three or four times more than we’ve had before,” said Nicholls. “It’s a unique experience and shows it’s the people’s race. My feet haven’t touched the ground.
“I had dinner with John after the race and got home after one o’clock. I went to check the horse was fine and there must have been 100 people in the yard waiting to see him, and other people have been arriving here since half past six. The party was still going on in the pub, but I swerved it to enjoy today. It still hasn’t sunk in.”
The deaths of two horses, Gold Cup winner Synchronised and According To Pete, place the race under scrutiny once again. This part of the west is jumping’s heartland and Ditcheat was hardly a place to look for dissenting voices, but Nicholls’ Ornais was one of a pair to lose their lives in last year’s event and the trainer is unabashed over his position.
“It’s a shame the headlines are not about what was a wonderful race,” he said. “Of course it was a tragedy [about Synchronised] and there are lessons to be learned, but you’ve got to reflect on the winner as well.
“Look at how many people were at Aintree enjoying it. Whether they do anything about the fences or the number of runners, I know the race is in good hands. But you can never make it a risk-free sport.”
The now-retired Neptune Collonges was appreciated by several rounds of ‘three cheers’ as he walked up and down a gridlocked Wraxall Road, perhaps to the bemusement of a supermarket delivery van and anyone visiting the Manor with the intention of enjoying a quiet Sunday lunch.
In the centre of it was Hales, who had been divided over running due to the death of his greatest horse One Man at the meeting in 1998, and whose nerves had been shredded by his latest horse’s nose victory over Sunnyhillboy. “I just watched him jump the last and I was overjoyed he was safe,” Hales said. “He would have won many Gold Cups if he wasn’t in the era of Kauto Star and Denman, and he was only a short-head behind Kauto in 2008.
“He’s earned the right to retirement now. He’ll go home with me to Shropshire and I’ll hopefully find someone to ride him, or Paul’s daughter Megan might ride him down here. He has been a dream for us.”
Jockey Daryl Jacob, was not one of the sore-headed majority as he had spent the early part of the evening in a Liverpool hospital with his friend, Noel Fehily, who broke his leg in the race, before returning straight to his Wincanton home. “I’m not a big fan of drinking, but I think my fiancee had enough for the two of us,” said the Irishman. “Hopefully life will be back to normal and I’ll be back racing at Exeter on Tuesday.”
Like Jacob, another new member of the team could be set for future stardom. Local 17-year-old Billy Page, known as ‘The Kid’, lodges with Nicholls’ nephew, Harry Derham, and partners Neptune Collonges on the gallops. He plans to follow Derham’s example and compete in point-to-points next season.
“I only came to Paul last year and on my first day they said I was riding Neptune Collonges. I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “He’s a slow old boy, but he’s such a gentleman.”
Having grown a little tired of the adulation, Neptune Collonges was led back up the lane to his stable. “You wouldn’t believe he’s run four and a half miles, he hasn’t got a scratch on him,” Nicholls said.