Aspell plans to rewrite Grand National history with Many Clouds
Leighton Aspell and Many Clouds already have their names indelibly etched in Aintree Grand National history, having famously triumphed 12 months ago. But a second consecutive victory on Saturday would elevate the pair to legendary status in the world's greatest race.
Aspell, 39, who also won it in 2014 on Pineau De Re, would become the first jockey to win three Nationals in a row, no small feat given the race was first run in 1839, while Many Clouds would be the first horse to win it twice in a row since Red Rum in 1974 and only the eighth horse to win more than one National. Also, a fourth winner for Trevor Hemmings would make him the most successful National owner.
Schooling on Thursday morning in Lambourn, the big chaser winged six fences under Aspell, the Dublin-born jockey who has ridden him in all 24 starts and remains the only man to have ridden the horse over a jump. The nine-year-old exuded athleticism, power and accuracy. "He doesn't need the practice," said Many Clouds's trainer, Oliver Sherwood. "We do it because he enjoys it." The horse does nothing to contradict either statement.
Red Rum apart, dual winners, while common in the race's early history, have been non-existent since the War. Red Rums do not grow on trees and, while previous winners often come back and run placed the following year, few have ever looked like winning it again; they have always found something better handicapped, younger, faster or luckier to beat them. And, while no one is yet comparing Many Clouds to the greatest National winner of all time, there is a growing confidence among punters, at any rate, that he has what it takes to become the first dual National winner since.
Connections, however, would never be so presumptuous and, remembering Aldaniti over-jumping at the first a year after his fairy-tale victory, Sherwood is cautionary about the record of previous winners even completing. If he is confident about anything it is that he has the horse in good shape going into the race.
But there is no denying that Lady Luck, who still plays her part, has taken a shine to his jockey when he pitches up at Aintree these days. But even he will have no idea whether the love affair remains on or is over - until Saturday.
Aspell's own connection with Aintree was very nearly instant. His first National ride, Supreme Glory, finished second to Monty's Pass in 2003. His record was a bit indifferent after that, unseated off a couple and falling spectacularly from Ballycassidy in 2006 before, in July 2007, he quit the saddle and went to work as an assistant for John Dunlop.
Retirement lasted 18 months before he was lured back by the camaraderie of the weighing room, and you can tell by his eyes that the man his colleagues nickname Lash is not so much enjoying his second coming as a jockey, he is loving it.
Sherwood, who encouraged the comeback, installed him as first jockey and has enjoyed something of a resurgence himself. Aspell, now very much a senior jockey, is in demand and is riding more winners than ever.
However, despite the record books showing he is the man with the golden touch, Aspell is wise enough to take nothing for granted even at the pasteurised, softened-up modern version of Aintree. "On the day it's just fallen right for me," he explained modestly. "I had a trouble-free route two years in a row - it's nothing more than that." Another thing in Many Clouds's favour, he feels, is the fact that the horse was still on the up last year and not, like many National winners, already in the twilight zone.
"I think he's a better horse than before," he said. "He's mentally in the right place and is definitely coming into the race in better form than a year ago, when he had given me no sort of feel in the Gold Cup. He'd had a hard winter with the Hennessy and Gold Cup last season, so I think there's more in the tank this time. I think the National also bottoms out some winners, too - a lot don't ever win another race but that has not been a problem with Many Clouds."
Aspell, who also runs a yard for horses out of training in Sussex, describes his National winners as chalk and cheese. "Pineau De Re was a small terrier with a big heart. He had to work really hard over those fences. Many Clouds is built for it. He's the perfect size, he's nimble, athletic and not slow. He has a very fast brain and fast feet. If something happens he can skip round it."
The jockey would like to ride a similar race to last year. "Get a good start, in the first dozen over the first circuit on the middle-inner and I'd like him to be in his comfort zone in the early part and follow the leaders on the second circuit.
"I know he stays but I won't be going too soon. Last year The Druids Nephew fell five out and left me in front. As soon as he was in front he pricked his ears and the race slowed up for a couple of furlongs while he filled his lungs up. Paddy Brennan and AP [McCoy] were happy to use me as a lead horse, but I was still leading them at the line."
After Pineau De Re's victory, the combination of tiredness and shock meant Aspell's celebrations were muted. "Last year I was hungry for the line, I couldn't wait to celebrate," he said, smiling at the memory. "Winning two Nationals has raised my profile both in and out of the sport. It's how you're introduced. It's a massive ice-breaker. I think three times is possible and as the race has got better I think it seems more possible. But you still need luck and your Mon Momes (110/1) and Auroras Encores (66/1) are still there winning at big prices.
"I won't be tense on Saturday. There will be a few butterflies, but they keep you sharp. I love riding in the National and I love riding Many Clouds. Every time he runs the other boys in the weighing room are in awe of him. I can't wait."