Friday 13 December 2019

Ian McClean: Grand National a triumph for the little man

Pineau De Re lands National glory for small-time team

Leighton Aspell rides Pineau De Re to victory in the Grand National at Aintree yesterday afternoon
Leighton Aspell rides Pineau De Re to victory in the Grand National at Aintree yesterday afternoon

Ian McClean

The 2014 Crabbie's Aintree Grand National – worth a million for the first time ever – will not go down in history like the Foinavon pile-up; or Devon Loch's mysterious collapse; or the Esha Ness National that never was; or Crisp being mugged by Red Rum. Moreover, it is unlikely that re-runs of the 2014 edition of the world's most famous steeplechase will get trotted out with impunity in years to come.

However, that was all immaterial for connections of yesterday's winner Pineau De Re, who celebrated with oblivion in a thronged winners' enclosure as the horse got a well-deserved hose-down for his exertions.

If the National is the People's Race then the connections of Pineau de Re, fittingly, are the People's People: a small-time owner-trainer partnership crested by a jockey who (for the second year in a row) returned to his profession for another go, having given up his licence. To illustrate the point the owner/trainer combination has its next runner in this afternoon's selling handicap hurdle at Market Rasen. They probably weren't figuring on nursing a Grand National hangover at declaration time yesterday morning. But then that's the enduring charm of the National.

Dr Richard Newland, who trains just a handful of horses "as a hobby really" is no Paul Nicholls or Willie Mullins, but neither will he any longer be Dr Who, after winning yesterday's famous feature with a horse he bought with his "greatest oldest racing friend" John Provan just a year ago. They have both been "coming here together for the last 20 years" and for both of them their biggest dream was to win the National.

Provan used to be an amateur rider and, in a sweet twist of fate, once rode in a race against the Princess Royal, from whom he received yesterday's winning trophy.

Owner Barry Connell is more normally associated with high-profile buys than sells, but Pineau De Re appeared in his yellow-and-black-sash colours when winning the Ulster National just 12 months ago off a rating of 125 at Downpatrick. You couldn't exactly describe yesterday's winner as having been plotted up for the Aintree National in the meantime as his new connections raced him just the 10 times in the last year en route to Liverpool, and, despite only one victory he had to compete yesterday off a mark of 143.

Mind you, Dr Newland has minted quite a reputation for helping improve his limited acquisitions and Pineau De Re's staying-on third in the Pertemps at Cheltenham caused the trainer "to begin to believe he could win it (the National)".

As well as having an eye for a horse, he must equally have an eye for a jockey as, having been forced to relinquish Sam Twiston-Davies to Tidal Bay, Newland opted for "renaissance man" Leighton Aspell on the basis that second-time-around riders are more likely to be doing it because they want to rather than because they have to – and Aspell's form and attitude this season have been testament to that.

The race itself yesterday was peculiar, if unspectacular, in many respects. Not one, but two false starts ably demonstrates that, despite sober guidelines and endless safety briefings, when the blood is up, raw impulse trumps logical compliance every time. Even then, the Dr Jekyll of Battle Group showed up and planted himself, taking no part. Across The Bay was barracked across the course by a loose horse when in the lead going out on the second circuit, eliminating his chance.

Long Run was a high-profile faller when very prominent about half-way around, perishing any notion of a Gold Cup/National double for the horse, or a Foxhunters/National double for his rider Sam Waley-Cohen.

For a moment before the Melling Road it looked like connections of last year's unlikely hero Aurora's Encore might be in the shake-up, as Mr Moonshine was jumping and travelling so well for Ryan Mania, but he faded very rapidly out the back of the TV monitor.

It was a race, strangely, where the same could be said of many, including most notably perhaps Prince de Beauchene, who surprisingly flattered to deceive having crept his way steadily into the firing line.

Having performed like a fader last year, Balthazar King did just the opposite this year – staying on dourly from a most unpromising position (his trainer thought he might be fifth or sixth turning for home) to finish second.

But perhaps the most peculiar aspect of the race was the ease with which the winner triumphed. In truth for a race where almost half the field – 18 horses – completed, it was as good as over from before the second last as Pineau De Re began to gallop clear. Besides that, the winner's leap at the last looked one of a fresh horse and all that despite the fact he had a far from error-free path along the way round – making a particularly bad error the jockey did well to sit just before the Chair. These things in the common experience normally make horses go slower, not faster.

The 2014 National, as well as being a triumph for the small man, was a triumph also for racing – as all jockeys and horses returned unharmed after the skirmish. The other winners – yet again – were the bookmakers, who were adding a 25/1 skinner to the 66/1 and 33/1 veterans who succeeded in the past two iterations of the biggest betting event on the calendar.

So next year remember, early, you need an 11-year-old no-hoper trained by someone you've hardly ever heard of, and ridden by a jockey who has had second thoughts about giving up the game. You have been warned.

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