Monday 20 January 2020

Neptune Collonges heads off for well-earned retirement after thrilling Aintree victory

UP until the weekend, John Hales had always been known as the owner of One Man, the brilliant, front-running grey, who was sadly killed on the Mildmay Course at Aintree 14 years ago.

Now, with the epic last-stride victory of Neptune Collonges on Saturday, Hales has gained entry to that most special of clubs, the one reserved for owners of a Grand National winner.

In 1998, One Man came to Liverpool off the back of his most famous victory, in the two-mile Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham.

He had won 20 of his 34 starts, but he took a crashing fall in the back straight and paid the ultimate price.

In the great emotion following Neptune Collonges’s triumph, Hales said: “Aintree owed me one.” It certainly did. Tears of sorrow had turned to tears of joy for the Teletubbies tycoon.

The official winning distance of a nose was introduced only a few years back, and this, the shortest possible winning margin, had never previously been posted after a Grand National. Possibly, in earlier days, the judge would have declared it a dead-heat.

Neptune Collonges produced one of the best finishes ever seen in the Grand National, as he flew at Sunnyhillboy in the very last stride.

Considering the nervous soul-searching and discussion that had gone into the decision to run Neptune Collonges in the race, it came as really no surprise to learn that the French-bred, who became the first grey in 51 years to win the race, had been retired. He deserved it, after having run the best race of his career.

For trainer Paul Nicholls, this was a long-awaited triumph in what had become his ‘bogey’ race.

Despite Gold Cups, King Georges, World Hurdles, and a Champion Hurdle, the multiple champion had not enjoyed much luck in the National, but the tide turned when the classiest horse he had run in it rose to the occasion.

Daryl Jacob rode an exceptionally well-judged race, working into the picture from a long way back.

His measure of elation was matched only by the crushing disappointment suffered by Richie McLernon, who partnered Sunnyhillboy.

Katie Walsh, aboard Seabass, came the closest any women has to winning the National but she said she felt her chance had gone at the Elbow.

It has often been argued that women jockeys do not get the chances they deserve, particularly over jumps.

But Walsh, and her sister-in-law Nina Carberry, have proven beyond doubt that if a female rider has the talent, the opportunities will come.

Carberry was unseated from Organisedconfusion, her Irish National winner of last year, at the Canal Turn on the first circuit but Walsh was there with a realistic winning chance, as she sailed over the last, vying for the lead.

She gave her mount every chance and for a while looked likely to rewrite National Velvet, giving it an Irish flavour.

Seabass was prominent all the way and seemed ready-made for the Aintree fences.

But it has become increasingly apparent in recent years that the class horse who stays and takes to the course, will always hold an edge, thus dispelling old ‘rules’ that a punter should never be backing a horse shouldering 11st or more. The last four National winners have all been in that category.

J?P McManus’s reputation as a genuine sportsman was again enhanced when he came over to congratulate Hales, never letting on that not only had he himself suffered defeat by the narrowest margin, he had also lost his Gold Cup winner through injury.

That takes strength of character.

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