Thursday 26 April 2018

Grand National 2016: Jockey cam shows how Leighton Aspell can earn place in history books

Many Clouds, with Leighton Aspell on board, clears a fence during last year's Grand National
Many Clouds, with Leighton Aspell on board, clears a fence during last year's Grand National

Matt Gatward

Leighton Aspell releases a shriek of childish excitement - “waahooo” - as he clears the third fence on the second lap of Aintree on his way to victory at the 2015 Grand National atop Many Clouds.

“Waahoo” is not the noise you or I would make - it would be shorter and more Anglo-Saxon in its derivation - as the sound of hooves thunders all around, the roar of the wind assaults the eardrums and the earth comes up at you at a terrifying speed.

This window into Aspell’s world, or rather, the chance to look through his eyes, is provided by the headcam he wore during last year’s race. The dizziness-inducing footage courtesy of Channel 4 captures every moment of his thrilling victory, from the playful joshing with Many Clouds’ team minutes before the start, to the chatter with fellow jockeys before the tape lifts, to the heart-stopping ride around Aintree, clearing the fences while steering away from erratic jumpers, culminating in the terrific push as the Irishman yells his mount to the line. It is visceral stuff, eight and half minutes of adrenaline as man and beast cover four and quarter treacherous miles in perfect unison.

And clearing the third, second time round, was key, says Aspell - hence the whoop.

“It was a bit of relief because, let me tell you, the third fence coming down there - that ditch is huge,” Aspell says after re-watching the footage. “Everyone talks about The Chair but the third and the fourth last are the big two. They take a bit of jumping. I was very conscious between the second and third fence [that the third was key]. I was pressing and he was at full stretch and he got across. He trusted me and thankfully it worked out.”

In truth, Aspell thought he had a chance within two seconds of jumping aboard Many Clouds, who he rides again in next Saturday’s National, the pair being favourite as Aspell seeks to become the first jockey to win the National three times on the bounce after he also claimed victory on Pineau De Re in 2014.

“He had a lovely spring in his step,” Aspell says. “At Cheltenham [where he’d ridden him at The Festival the previous month] he was quick early and was going flat out. He was below his best, he was so quiet. As soon as I was on him at Aintree he was feeling good.”

Anthony McCoy, who finished fifth in his final National on Shutthefrontdoor last year, agrees that you can smell it in the opening ups and downs if you are in with a shot at glory. “You know very early on - after four or five fences - whether the horse is going to be a good enough jumper. It doesn't matter how good a jockey you are, you have to ride an intelligent horse. The horse has to be able to look after itself. I knew after five or six fences Shutthefrontdoor was going to get round.”

Unless, of course, Lady Bad Luck crosses your path. “I probably had two or three occasions where [due to other horses altering course] you have to change your mind at the last second,” says Aspell, which is all too clear in the footage as horses cut left and right. “[If not] it could have been my race over. There was one horse, The Rainbow Hunter, who lining up I didn’t want to be anywhere near because he’d ran twice and fallen twice, I think, and I ended up behind him. You read the paper in the morning and go through the card and you go: ‘No, no, no, no, no.’ Because you roughly know how certain jockeys ride and where they will be in the race and you try to paint a picture. But you know after a couple of fences something will come into your peripheral vision and you think ‘ah no’ but you just try and focus on your job.”

Amazingly, for a man going for his third National crown, Aspell, now 39, lost focus on his job and gave up the gig for 18 months back in July 2007 when he announced his retirement from race riding. Instead of the daily dash, he went to work for trainer John Dunlop in Sussex. He loved it but the thought nagged away…

“I just had a niggling doubt,” Aspell says. “I thought I should still be riding. I’m obviously so glad I changed my mind. I had a massive appreciation of what I was doing when I returned to being a jockey. I now cherish it. The opportunity was there and I took it with both hands.”

Watch the full How To Win The Grand National video below...

So on Saturday, can he and Many Clouds find a place in the sun once again? “Its been a different preparation this year,” he says. “We’ve had different races, but it was really good to see the energy and enthusiasm he showed at Kelso last time [in mid-March]. [His form] has been bubbling under the surface all year but hopefully it’s coming together at the right time.”

And the headcam that’s offered this unique view of the world’s greatest race. Does it bother him? “No, it’s very light and it’s been a massive hit. I've got a lot more important things to worry about.”

Independent News Service

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