DIARY – AINTREE – SATURDAY 04 APRIL 2009
THE GRAND NATIONAL
No. 7 & 23 – The Fionavon Fence
Having spent a very fitful night at the Premier Inn, lying awake for up to an hour on a couple of occasions, I had finally gone to sleep only to be awoken at 06:00 by my mobile phone alarm. However, I got up straight away, showered and washed my hair. Having dried my hair, I then applied my make-up and was soon ready to face the day ahead.
I called for Lesley just before 08:00 and we set off to have breakfast in the adjacent restaurant. I had eggs, bacon and mushrooms, Lesley ate more. We had finished by 08:45, so returned to our rooms to do our final packing, before setting off with our suitcases to collect the car and head back up the A57 to Aintree.
As my car’s fuel tank was under half full we stopped to fill up with petrol at Asda on way in. And, taking, the correct route today, we crossed the canal bridge and the racecourse, and joined the queuing traffic to await the compulsory vehicle search. Ah ha … they found my stash of Snickers bars in the glove compartment!
Once we’d cleared the security check, we parked the car, and bought our race-cards before joining the queue in preparation for having our bags checked. As we had arrived before the gate opening time of 10:00, we had to wait a few minutes whilst the security staff prepared for their task ahead.
Our bags were searched and we were asked to pass through airport style security checks, before we were permitted to walk across the course and take the shuttle-bus to the other side of the course.
We stepped off the bus and headed for the grandstand area. The amateur jockeys who were to compete in the Charity flat race event crossed our path as we walked across the home straight. I recognised Craig Brown (the landlord of Choc’s favourite hostelry and a competitor in the Charity flat race) as I’d read a number of internet articles about his endeavours.
I had it in the back of my mind that I’d like to complete the course walk before racing, just in case I never got the opportunity again. So we checked the route details at the information area, although it later became apparent that the relevant information was also in the race-card! Anyway, Lesley wasn’t feeling game as her feet were still sore from yesterday, so I decided to take up the challenge alone.
The walk takes you across the home straight (where we had already crossed having been dropped off by the shuttle-bus, you then have to follow the ‘foot’ signposts which take you diagonally back across to the outside of the course to the ‘Steeplechase enclosure’, then along the footpath beside the first Grand National fence. You then cross over the course, and turn right to walk along the inside perimeter road down to Becher’s Brook. You follow this around past the Fionavon fence and the Canal Turn, and back past Valentine’s Brook until you are directed back across the centre of the mid-course golf course to return via the path which runs between fences 1 and 2, retracing your steps to base. Only owners, trainers and jockeys (badge-holders) can reach the 4 fences in the home straight, this includes The Chair.
I suppose it sounds strange when I say that the fences weren’t as big as I expected them to be. Not that I’d have the guts to jump them aboard a galloping horse! I guess it’s because I remember the fences before the safety modifications were put in place. And this includes when Becher’s Brook had a very big drop on the landing side towards the inside rail, and an open-brook.
I thought my flat ‘driving’ shoes would be comfortable to wear as I walked around the course, but I got a large blister on the second toe of my right foot, and the heel of my tights was completely laddered – but what do I expect from a 10 denier pair?
As I arrived back I heard Choc being introduced for an interview which was being broadcast live over the announcement system. I hurried back to find Lesley, who was just returning from the Weighing Room steps, but I’d just missed Choc – Lesley said he’d been standing just outside the Weighing Room to be interviewed. I recall their next interviewee was Christian Williams (who Lesley thinks is rather nice!)
It was now time to change my shoes (and tights!), and then we went to the Tote office to place our bets for the day. Lesley’s winning bets today would be each-way on both United in the Aintree Chase, and Comply or Die in the Grand National.
We then headed for the steps below the Weighing Room, to see the riders descend to the paddock in preparation for the People’s Race. I noticed a number of the jockey valets were standing just outside the Weighing Room door, including Choc’s valet, Phil Taylor, who we’d met last year at Cheltenham.
The competitors in this race ranged from 23 to 47 years of age. Choc’s fiancée, Meally, waited by the exit chute, to wish Craig luck as he was led out onto the course. The horses’ handlers accompanied their charges all the way to the start, and led them around there too. Then they were off.
As soon as the race began, Mith Hill, ridden by David Griffiths went into the lead. He was followed by Thunder Rock, Topinambour, Bright Sparky, and Some Touch. By the time they had reached the top bend, Thunder Rock had dropped back. However, Mith Hill, continued to lead and went away to win well. Craig Brown came down the inside aboard Thunder Rock to take second.
The winning rider, David Griffiths, was 25, and his supported charities were The Injured Jockeys Fund and the County Air Ambulance.
Having bet on Craig each way, I won back my stake plus £0.40p! This amount was small, as he was the favourite.
Before the first race, past Grand National winners were paraded in the paddock – Minnehomma (1994); Rough Quest (1996); Lord Gyllene (1997); Papillon (2000); Red Marauder (2001); Binderee (2002); Monty’s Pass (2003); and Numbersixvalverde (2006).
We went to sit beside the Parade Ring, and I noticed Choc’s parents were viewing the proceedings from the steps in front of the Weighing Room.
We watched the horses come into the Parade Ring. Alan had 2 runners in this event – Saticon and Trenchant. Saticon was very much on his toes, with the horse preferring to jog sideways and occasionally backwards around the pathway, so a second handler was called in to assist. Once the horses had exited the Parade Ring, Lesley and I set off for the course-side rails to watch the race.
The horses cantered to the start of this race, which was mid-way down the back straight. Then they were off.
What a Buzz led them off, Door Boy and Bouggler were prominent, as was Cape Tribulation. Choc was on the outside of the field, nearer last than first, and he administered a reminder to Saticon just after the first flight. At the back of the field at this stage were Ainama, Maidstone Mixture and Trafalgar Road. Trenchant was mid-field, taking an inside line next to the rail.
Turning into the straight on the first occasion, still up front was What a Buzz, followed by Door Boy and Cape Tribulation. Bouggler was not hurdling fluently down the straight, and Borderhopper was already beginning to labour. Saticon was still on the outside of the field, and being given further reminders.
As they raced away from the stands Marwan began to lose touch and Borderhopper began to tail off, and by the end of the back straight Saticon had also lost touch. Door Boy had taken up the running after the 5th, retaining the lead for the most part until finally relinquished it 3 out. Trenchant made headway from the 6th flight, and was ridden as he came around the top bend but did make progress and by the final flight was in a position to challenge for the lead.
Four horses jumped the last flight line abreast – Ainama, Bouggler, Copper Bleu and, taking a wider course, Trenchant. Copper Bleu got his head just in front on the run-in but Bouggler fought back to take it on the line. Tony McCoy finished 3rd aboard Ainama, with Trenchant 4th. Having tailed off, Choc pulled up Saticon before 3 out. Saticon seems to have temperament issues and is becoming a difficult ride. Richard Johnson received a 1-day whip-ban for his ride aboard Copper Bleu, and missed the Scottish Grand National day at Ayr as a result.
We returned to the Parade Ring to watch the horses arrive in preparation for the next race. Choc did not have a ride in this event. Once the competitors had exited onto the course, we set off to the course-side rails to view the proceedings.
The second race of the day started over at the far corner of the racecourse, so the horses cantered up the track beside the home straight to reach it. It transpired that AP McCoy’s mount, Song of Songs, had lost his off-fore shoe, so the farrier re-plated him at the start, whilst the other jockeys dismounted and led their horses around. Then the grey, Doctor David, was reluctant to line up with the other animals, Andrew Thornton initially dismounting to lead him in and, once back aboard, leaving his feet out of the stirrups to offer extra encouragement. But this was all in vain, as the starter could not wait any longer so let the remaining runners go. The horse had come under Starter’s orders so deductions were made to any winning bets.
The field was led off by Made in Taipan, followed closely by the favourite, Tatenen. Approaching the 5th Kalahari King took closer order to go third. Tatenen joined the leader at the 7th and took up the running after 4 out (the cross fence).
Song of Songs made an error at the cross fence and stumbled, probably clipping heels, as he came into the final straight too. But that wasn’t the worst of it, as he made a very bad mistake at the third last, then capsized on landing over the second last, which is the final open-ditch.
Kalahari King had taken the lead from Tatenen before clearing the last obstacle, and went on to win well by 8 lengths. Made in Taipan, stayed on at one pace to finish 3rd.
Choc was riding Katchit in the next race, stepping up in trip to 2 miles and 4 furlongs for the first time. Alan King also trained the JP McManus owned Franchoek, today ridden by Barry Geraghty, as AP had chosen to ride JP’s Jered. Once the horses had exited the Parade Ring we set off for the course-side rails.
The start of this race was in the back straight. There was a slight delay, as an item of Catch Me’s tack needed to be replaced before the race began. Then they were off.
The field was led off by Hardy Eustace, with Celestial Halo prominent, and Hills of Aran soon taking over at the front. Katchit travelled along the inside in 4th position. United could be spotted on the outside of the field, Franchoek was held up in rear, with Whiteoak the back-marker as they travelled down the home straight for the first time.
They rounded the bend and set out onto the final circuit. Katchit was pushed along after the 5th and after the 6th began to lose his place and drop back. One of the greys, Cybergenic was struggling. Hills of Aran still held the lead around the final bend, but the challengers were lining up behind him.
At the second last obstacle, 4 horses were in the firing line – Al Eile, United, Fiveforthree and Solwit, with the latter two battling out the finish, and Solwit claiming the prize under Davy Russell. Katchit finished in 12th, with Franchoek in 14th (last of the finishers). Champion Hurdle runner up, Celestial Halo, under Ruby Walsh finished 11th just one place ahead of Katchit.
Choc had no ride in the next race of the day.
As the race started at the far end of the home straight, the horses cantered up the all-weather track beside the course to reach it. Then they were off.
The field was led off by Island Flyer, with Crescent Island making a mistake at the first obstacle, then Aimigayle blundering and unseating her rider at the 2nd fence, the open-ditch. The bottom weight, Oakfield Legend, took up the running after the 3rd fence, Island Flyer remained prominent, as were According to John, Peter Pole, Ashley Brook and Daldini.
Maljimar and Alexanderthegreat jumped slowly at the last down the back straight (7th fence). Ashley Brook soon dropped back. Oakfield Legend was jumping for fun in the lead, but Crescent Island was labouring and had begun to tail off when Paddy Brennan pulled him up before the 11th. Having dropped out, Ashley Brook was pulled up before the 12th, as was Turko. Then AlexandertheGreat was pulled up before the 13th. The birch flew as Peter Pole made a mistake at the last down the back (15th obstacle).
With the majority of the field toiling in his wake or already pulled up, Oakfield Legend was still making the running as they turned towards the cross fence (4 from home). But this is where Oakfield Legend made his one and only mistake of the race, Peter Pole in second place clobbered the fence, losing all momentum as he landed almost sideways on, and AP’s mount Don’t Push It which was in 3rd place by this time, also took a bite of the turf.
However Oakfield Legend continued to lead into the straight, until joined and overtaken by Don’t Push It between the last two obstacles, AP’s mount galloping on to win by 3½ lengths from the staying on Leading Contender. The wonderfully brave and very game Oakfield Legend finished in 3rd. According to John plugged on for 4th, with the only other finisher, Pretty Star in 5th.
Also pulled up were the disappointing Star de Mohaison (before the 14th), Three Mirrors (before 4 out), Daldini (before 3 out), Tot O’Whiskey (before 3 out) and Maljimar (just before the 2nd last). Peter Pole was pulled up shortly after his very bad blunder at the 4th last.
It was now time for the big event – The Grand National.
I wanted to wish Choc luck as he exited the Weighing Room, so we stood beside the walkway which leads down to the Winners’ Enclosure/Parade Ring. Ratings from HMS Mersey lined their route. Timmy Murphy was first out, immediately followed by Choc. Lesley wished Christian Williams luck too.
I knew a group photo would be taken of the jockeys before they proceeded to the Parade Ring, but unfortunately Choc decided to sit on the ground at the very front of the podium so I couldn’t see him as a camera-man was in the way. Damn!
Having placed ourselves next to the course-side rails by the exit gates, we then meet a stable-girl who asked us who we’d put our money on – at this point I have to admit to having 5 each-way bets in the big race – Kilbeggan Blade, Rambling Minster, Battlecry, Darkness (partly because Wayne Hutchinson was riding and partly because I’d stayed in room 29 last night and 29 was his number) and, of course, L’Ami because I adore Choc Thornton. It turned out she was a big Choc fan too.
There were 2 false starts and a ‘not ready’ delay too. On the first occasion, Kilbeggan Blade, Silver Birch and Chelsea Harbour had almost reached the first fence before their jockeys could pull them up – presumably the starting official decided it was a no-goer because Fundamentalist was reluctant and had dropped himself back some way behind all the other runners.
On the second occasion, the tape hadn’t been attached before Silver Birch decided to take it with him. The ‘not ready’ was Ruby and Choc amongst others signalling that they weren’t quite ready for the off. The field then walked in for the final time, and they were away, although Fundamentalist still didn’t seem all that keen to join the others as they set off towards the first obstacle. As a result of these false starts, 4-day suspensions were awarded to Nick Scholfield, Denis O’Regan, Davy Russell, RM Power, Paul Townend, and PW Flood.
Choc aboard L’Ami was steering a route about 3 or 4 horses off the inside rail, and initially two thirds of the way down the field. Although having watched L’Ami run before, both live and on TV, I’d never really noticed his high head carriage until today – but at least that probably meant it was less likely Choc would be unseated over his head!
L’Ami ran well and was not far off the leaders before he started to fade as they crossed the Melling Road for the final time. Choc decided to pull him up before the final obstacle, and I breathed a sigh of relief as he (Choc) cantered up the home straight to return safe and sound. Choc probably thinks it’s stupid to fuss over things like that, but his welfare is of paramount importance, as being a National Hunt jockey can be a very dangerous occupation.
The Venetia Williams trained Mon Mome (translates as ‘My Kid’) stayed on strongly to win by 12 lengths. Last year’s winner Comply or Die finished 2nd, with My Will under Ruby Walsh 1¼ lengths away in 3rd. The Evan Williams trained, State of Play, was 4½ lengths away in 4th. The winning jockey was Arundel born, Liam Treadwell.
Here is a list of the finishers in the 2009 Grand National:
And those which did not finish:
Both Comply or Die and Butler’s Cabin (with a previous history of collapsing post-race) required oxygen after they had finished the race, green screens being erected around the horses just in case the prognosis was bad. Sadly, one of the Irish competitors, Hear the Echo collapsed and died on the run-in having suffered a heart-attack.
We waited for Choc to unsaddle and walk back in before we set off for the Winners’ Enclosure to see the presentation ceremony.
We didn’t watch the next race from course-side, but remained by the Parade Ring and viewed it on the large screen. Alan King’s entry in this race was Awesome George ridden by Charlie Huxley.
The start of the race was over in the far corner of the track, so the horses cantered up along the all-weather track which runs alongside the home straight to reach it. When it was time to line up, Doubly Guest hung back to the outside and an attempt was made to lead her in. The horses took another turn, and then another. They lined up again, but Doubly Guest was still reluctant, and one of the other runners got too close to the tape, so they didn’t go on this occasion either.
Finally they were off, but Doubly Guest refused to go with them. Tartan Snow took up the running, closely followed by Issaquah and Alsadaa. Stradbrook and Mutual Friend brought up the rear. Midway down the back, Alsadaa was sent on into the lead.
As they approached the second last, Issaquah, Hot Diamond, Joe Jo Star, Qozak, and Culcabock were in the front line, with the former setting out for the finish in front, but just being collared on the line by a strongly driven Culcabock. A 66-1 winner. At the back of the field, Kempley Green fell at the final flight but horse and jockey were okay. Awesome George finished in 7th place.
It was now time for the final race of the meeting, a National Hunt flat race, and it was vital that AP McCoy or Ruby Walsh (with 2 winners apiece and more placed horses) didn’t win this one, otherwise they would deprive Choc of the fixture’s Leading Jockey award (3 winners so far). Choc had a ride in this event too so, if he won the race, it would all be academic. Choc was aboard the Alan King trained Lidar, with Wayne Hutchinson riding Whistlejacquet. Having been unseated in the Grand National, Denis O’Regan had given up his ride on Meridian City, and was replaced by Davy Russell.
We watched the horses circle the Parade Ring and once Choc was mounted he took an additional circuit before exiting onto the walkway which runs underneath the stands. We set off for the course-side rails, walking down almost alongside him as he came out.
The start of this event was in the far corner of the course. At the start there was a short delay whilst adjustments were made to Premier Sagas’ saddle. Then they were off.
The field was led off by Saveiro, followed by Sitting Tennant. Choc took a mid-line, mid-field position aboard Lidar. Initially Choc followed Whistlejacquet but soon drew alongside him. Up the back straight it was still Saveiro and Sitting Tennant, followed by Wymott. Lidar was just worse than mid-field, but AP (City Theatre) and Ruby (Like Minded) were in around the same place too. Silver Accord was pulled up at the top bend.
As they came into the home straight, Cranky Corner was travelling well but Sitting Tennant had gone for home, although drifting to the right as he came under pressure. Lidar was behind a wall of horses as they approached the final furlong but Choc pulled him towards the inside and came between Giordano Bruno and Cranky Corner to challenge Sitting Tennant. There was the width of the course between them as they galloped towards the line. Despite probably getting his head in front, Lidar was touched off before the line, Sitting Tennant taking the prize by ¾ of a length. Another 66-1 winner.
We returned to the Winners’ Enclosure to see Choc come back to unsaddle Lidar before he returned to the Weighing Room. After the prizes had been awarded to the connections of Sitting Tennant, it was time for the final presentation of the meeting – the award to the Leading Jockey at the Festival. Choc had won, the only jockey to have ridden 3 winners – Walkon, Oh Crick and Voy Por Ustedes.
Choc returned from the Weighing Room and met up with his parents in the Winners’ Enclosure. Initially just Choc went to collect his prize, but then he invited his parents (Sally and Martin) onto the podium too. The official photographer took a number of pictures before everyone left the podium.
As he left the Winners’ Enclosure he received a number of requests from punters asking if they could have their photo taken with him (including me). Meally had also now returned to meet up with him and his parents.
It was then time for us to go. We made our way back to the crossing point and took the shuttle-bus back to the car park to collect my vehicle and head for home. The queue to leave the course wasn’t too bad and we were soon on our way back along the M57 / M62 / M6 (non-toll). On the M6 we passed Charlie Mann’s horsebox (bound for Lambourn in Berkshire), then Jonjo O’Neill’s (bound for Jackdaws Castle in Gloucestershire) and finally Paul Nicholls’ (bound for Ditcheat in Somerset).
Our journey took us down the M6 to the M1, and off at junction 14 to drop Lesley off at the village where she lives. I then drove back to Hertfordshire, arriving home at 22:30. I enjoyed my first trip to Aintree very much and hope to return again soon.