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Grand finale on day of drama and tragedy


Neptune Collonges, grey, ridden by Daryl Jacob runs clear as members of the chasing pack struggle to clear the Aintree fences

Neptune Collonges, grey, ridden by Daryl Jacob runs clear as members of the chasing pack struggle to clear the Aintree fences

Neptune Collonges, grey, ridden by Daryl Jacob runs clear as members of the chasing pack struggle to clear the Aintree fences

It was the best of Nationals, it was the worst of Nationals. On the positive side, we witnessed one of the most thrilling finishes in the enduring history of the world's most compelling steeplechase.

Paul Nicholls finally hit the jackpot with his 52nd runner in a race he has been attempting to win since 1992 as Neptune Collonges led right on the line to deny JP McManus a second Aintree Grand National victory with Sunnyhill Boy.

Besides the usual smothering quota of emotion, the grey's victory provided a particularly sweet moment for soft toy tycoon John Hales, who resisted family pressure by allowing his horse to take his chance in the race in spite of having lost his other illustrious grey One Man at the same meeting in 1998.

A very relieved owner said afterwards: "I just wanted him to get round safe. I never dreamed we'd win it. I'm so emotional I cannot believe it."

The race, however, was marred by two equine fatalities -- one of whom was Gold Cup winner Synchronised the According to Pete. The joint-favourite had already caused a commotion by decanting AP McCoy on the way to the start and running loose until finally caught by a photographer.

It was a dark day for owner JP McManus who, as well enduring the agony of being nutted on the line, had to then digest the news of the loss of his Gold Cup winner. Knowing there'll be days like this doesn't make them any easier to take.

As ever, the yawning difference between victory and defeat was best captured non-verbally. As the two protagonists lunged for the line after four and half gruelling miles and 30 daunting obstacles Sunnyhill Boy's trainer Jonjo O'Neill locked his hands over his ears and averted his eyes. As the result was announced winning jockey Daryl Jacob raised his arms and eyes heavenwards. A clearly overcome Jacob said: "You can't beat this. I was on a tough horse and I said to Paul that one day I would ride you a National winner. That was two years ago and now I've done it."

It looked for a long way as if a fairytale Walsh family repeat was on the cards as Seabass travelled very strongly for Katie Walsh till beyond the last only to tire close to home. It means, in finishing third, that Katie becomes the most successful lady rider to ever compete in the race and she said afterwards: "He gave me an unbelievable spin. I just want to go straight back out and do it all again!"

The vagaries of the sport were clearly highlighted by the crunching fall in the Aintree Hurdle that caused brother Ruby (Walsh) to forfeit his rides for the rest of the day. His National mount On His Own went to Paul Townend who was still travelling with purpose when capsizing at Becher's second time. Ruby could have ridden Neptune Collonges, and he could have ridden Seabass but he was first on hand to congratulate Nicholls in the enclosure, and quick to join the family celebrations nearby for his sister's accomplishment.

Fourth-placed Cappa Bleu's trainer Evan Williams, no stranger to saddling placed runners in the National after his State Of Play made the frame in the previous three runnings, said: "Inexperience caught him [Cappa Bleu] out. He got shuffled back. Paul (Maloney) said he found every faller he could. It was a good run and I'm proud."

It took Neptune Collonges every inch of the four and a half miles to get his nose in front for the first time literally on the post and he can now celebrate his success in retirement -- which was the owner's intention win or lose. The victory also puts Paul Nicholls in pole position for the trainer's title, in spite of the fact that rival Nicky Henderson had four winners and a second on the undercard, including two Grade Ones and a Grade Two.

Finally, the Grand National itself was in danger of being hijacked by rumours circulating later in the day that Frankel is to be retired. However, Prince Abdullah's racing manager Lord Grimthorpe, guest for the day at Aintree, moved to clarify that no decision would be made on his future until after an official scan next week. The loss of one champion of the turf is a tragedy; the loss of two in one day would have been more than even Oscar Wilde could have described.

Sunday Indo Sport