Sunday 18 March 2018

Second bites yield rich harvest

Winning trainer Oliver Sherwood and jockey Leighton Aspell
Winning trainer Oliver Sherwood and jockey Leighton Aspell


There are many ways to win a National it seems. One is to put your horse away in November, another is to keep them over hurdles. A more unorthodox approach is to prepare your horse for the Gold Cup and just follow on in the National as an after-thought. Consequently the collective reaction of all those connected to yesterday's winner Many Clouds was disbelief. Mixed with euphoria, obviously.

They say class will out, but in spite of Many Clouds being the second highest-rated horse in the 39 runner line-up, still the eight-year-old was as absent from the experts' fancied lists as the 25/1 SP suggests.

The market was blinded to his National claims by a tepid run in the Gold Cup where the Oliver Sherwood horse finished a well-stuffed and never-nearer sixth. Connections were mystified, and very little was done with the horse in the meantime while Sherwood began musing over Aintree. Aintree 2016, that is.

However, owner Trevor Hemmings, who has had an image of the Grand National projected on his soul ever since his boss and mentor Fred Pontin's Specify won the famous race in 1971, was having none of it.

While the trainer thought it "one year too soon" the owner pays the bills and was adamant. The owner had won the great beloved race twice and his motto was never to say never again. Sherwood admitted he had done nothing with the winner since Cheltenham - "I didn't even build a National fence" - and could be no more than hopeful given that to this day he still hasn't a clue why the horse failed to turn up at the Festival.

Jockey Leighton Aspell had fully expected to renew his partnership with last year's winner Pineau de Re, but his association with Many Clouds, which goes back to the gelding's three year old days, trumped his allegiance to Dr Newland's 2014 National hero as soon as Many Clouds was declared for the race. After all, how do you get off a horse you have partnered on all 19 career starts?

Leighton Aspell yesterday became the first jockey to win back-to-back Nationals since Brian Fletcher (on Red Rum) in the 1970s and the first to win on different horses since Brian Marshall in the 1950s. And whilst Aspell was cool-as-shell-shocked in victory last year, he was far more animated this time around. As a sample illustration you just need to contrast his exuberant celebration crossing the line yesterday with the static sit of 2014.

After all, there is something especially revitalising about a second bite. The second bite at National glory mirrors Aspell's second bite at his career.

Disillusioned, he gave up the game in July 2007 and went to work for John Dunlop in Arundel for 18 months before returning in 2009 as he missed out awfully on the thrill of riding and the camaraderie of the weigh-room. As well as the high-point of the National, last season Aspell recorded his highest ever tally numerically with 65 winners.

The incredulous trainer Oliver Sherwood has experienced considerable darkness in his career also following the glow of a high-profile decade that once included horses like Large Action, Arctic Call, Young Snugfit, Coulton and Berude Not To.

Many Clouds' victories this season in the Hennessy and BetBright Gold Cup were beginning to afford Sherwood's Lambourn yard - the same yard that sent out National winner Battleship in 1939 - its very own second bite and yesterday's first National victory will taste all the sweeter for that. Both Oliver (Venture to Cognac, eighth in 1983) and wife Tarnya (pulled up in 1989) competed once in the National as jockeys but yesterday's win will be in a different stratosphere entirely.

With all the focus on second bites, it is ironic that AP McCoy will this morning be reflecting on his last bite of the most coveted race in the sport that he served, and served him, so famously.

He had a fantastic spin around on favourite Shutthefrontdoor who just lacked the extra charge in the last furlongs of the world's most famous race. There was something truly poignant about his throw-away post-race remark that "I wouldn't mind riding him next year" - knowing that in a fortnight he will finally, and with increasing reluctance, close the book on the last chapter of a truly remarkable career. He wouldn't be human if he didn't get taunted by the temptation of the second bite.

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