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National treasure Harvey signals a V for victory

Spotlight returns to Smith 40 years after his infamous salute, writes Ian McCleanIf the Aintree Grand National is a national institution then it was fitting it should finally be won by another national institution. Harvey Smith's name may not have appeared on the race-card alongside 66/1 National winner Aurora's Encore, but there aren't many of yesterday's connections featured in the Chambers Dictionary.

Smith's entry is listed as a V-sign in reference to a dubious salute he famously directed to the judges at Hickstead back in 1971 at the peak of his show-jumping career.

His memorable "Up Yours" gesture must have been uppermost in the minds of the swarm of media as Mr Sue Smith began his address as the world was catching its breath after Aurora's Encore's triumph just moments before.

"This race gets a lot of criticism but you know what you can all say about that now?" Harvey paused as the assembly wondered if the next remark would even be printable. "Rubbish" was the more considered 2013 riposte.

Indeed far from simply being a triumph for just Mr & Mrs Smith, this was a rally for the race itself given the extent to which it has been dogged by increasing controversy and criticism in recent times. Another Smith – sponsor John Smith's – can be reassured that the ninth and final renewal of their tenure leaves the iconic steeplechase in mint condition for a handover.

After the spectre of two equine fatalities last year, Aintree put this year's event through a health-and-safety ringer with a litany of new procedures – material and otherwise – that made your typical IKEA instruction manual read like a fortune cookie. However, the net outcome was that 40 horse-and-riders went out yesterday and all returned without as much as a broken finger-nail.

It all began most auspiciously as the often-hairy starting procedure worked seamlessly this time – the start was orderly, fair, aligned and on-time (just 15 seconds after the official 4.15 off time.) 17 horses completed the circuit and, astonishingly, there wasn't a single casualty in the race until the ninth obstacle (Canal Turn). In fact by the time the field arrived at the Chair, 35 horses were still in the field.

Harvey and Sue Smith conduct their business on 150 acres of their Craiglands Farm at the hard fringe of Bingley Moor in Yorkshire. It's a place once described by Harvey as "not for polished door handles and hanging baskets". Wife Sue began training horses as a hobby 23 years ago, was also reared on a farm (in Sussex) and has been surrounded by horses all her life. There is little, combined, that they haven't already learned about their profession.

Sue Smith hasn't had a runner in the National since 2006, has had a total of seven attempts (with just five different horses), and got no nearer than seventh before yesterday. Her last two contenders both fell. More pointedly, she lost both The Last Fling and Goguenard to the race amongst those few attempts. Mercifully it wasn't enough to put her off the race – "I've lived with horses all my life, as long as I can remember, and you do learn to cope with it" was her stoic approach.

If there was redemption for the connections in yesterday's result there was a similar tonic for the horse that was agonisingly touched off in the Scottish National this time last year when looking all over the winner in the closing stages.

Not many will remember either how Aurora's Encore popped up at 50/1 (wasn't even listed as a course winner in the trade's Racing Post yesterday) at this meeting five years ago.

Back then, yesterday's winning jockey Ryan Mania was scratching around for rides. His association with trainer Peter Monteith ended in tragic circumstances and his subsequent move to Howard Johnson culminated in that trainer losing his licence.

It all caused the young Scot to take a career break and assess whether the profession he chose relatively late (didn't have his first ride until he was 18) was really a path he wanted to continue. Little wonder then that yesterday, after winning on his first ever ride in the world's most famous steeplechase, that he should be wandering from interview to interview wondering "When am I gonna wake up?"

If the horse, trainer(s) and jockey seemed unlikely heroes before 4.15 yesterday, then the set is complete by local part-owner Jim Beaumont who recalled, as he received the coveted trophy, how he once worked as a bell-boy in the locally famous Adelphi hotel.

The cliché says there is always a story behind the National winner. The truth is there is more than just one.

Harvey Smith's run-in with the Hickstead judges made him notorious far beyond his sport back in the day. He admitted later that it never did him any harm. Indeed, one of the fall-outs was that he got a contract afterwards advertising Victory V throat lozenges. He might have felt the need to reach for them yesterday in the aftermath of another, less controversial victory.

Irish Independent