DIARY – AINTREE
SATURDAY 09 APRIL 2011
GRAND NATIONAL DAY – PART II
Choc is disappointed but fortunately unscathed
It was now time for the big event – the 2011 Grand National.
Following the fourth race of the day, Lesley and I had decided to remain in the Earl of Derby enclosure; our other option being to find a spot alongside the steps leading down from the Weighing Room to await the arrival of the jockeys. I chose the former as it always seems that fortune doesn’t smile on Choc when I wish him luck!
Upon exiting the Weighing Room and descending the steps, led by AP McCoy with Timmy Murphy bringing up the rear, the jockeys went to sit or stand on the Winner’s Podium to have a group photograph taken ahead of the big race. Choc sat on the lower step, with Leighton Aspell to his left, and Ryan Mahon to his right. Being a hot day, Choc was sucking an ice-cube to ease dehydration (not chewing gum as was unkindly suggested by someone!) The jockeys then headed out into the main Parade Ring area to find their respective trainers and owners.
There were three sets of siblings riding in this year’s race – Leighton and Paddy Aspell, Andrew and Robbie McNamara, Paul and Nina Carberry. And Barry Geraghty substituted for the injured Tom Scudamore aboard the David Pipe trained Or Noir De Somoza.
Whilst we were waiting for the runners to make their appearance on the walkway leading to the track, there was a small ceremony as the Grand National winner’s trophy was brought out onto the course, accompanied by the members of the Household Cavalry acting as security. There was a parade of servicemen and women in front of the stands at this point in time, and members of this vanguard took part in a photo-call with the trophy.
Choc and his mount eventually appeared and were led out onto the course; West End Rocker was on his toes. Having remained by the walkway gate, I had a good vantage point as he passed by. The horses were organised into two groups; those numbered 1 to 20 circled in front of our grandstand; numbers 21 to 40 circled to our right, in front of the Lord Sefton stand. Once sorted into the correct order, the runners were paraded up the course in single file in front of the grandstands, led by the top weight who was also last year’s winner, Don’t Push It ridden by AP McCoy. Choc was in the second group, as West End Rocker was number 28.
Once paraded, the horses set off for the start, cantering down over the Melling Road to take a look at the first fence before returning to the starting gate to have the horses’ girths checked. In the hope of avoiding the false starts of previous years, the Starter, Hugh Barclay, had climbed onto his rostrum in good time; the jockeys seemed a little less eager this year, as they tend to charge the tape as soon as the starter climbs the steps!
Then they were off ... at the first time of asking! In rear were That’s Rhythm, who jumped the path which ran across the course; Surface To Air was the last away.
The field was led away by the oldest horse in the line-up, Hello Bud, ridden by the youngest jockey in the race, Sam Twiston-Davies. The first casualty was the aforementioned That’s Rhythm who fell at the first; his ‘path leap’ had been his best jump of the day! Having tracked the leaders, Becauseicouldntsee fell at the second, bringing down Vic Venturi. All the runners cleared the third, the open ditch, although Ruby Walsh’s mount, The Midnight Club, made an error here. The Donald McCain Jnr trained Ballabriggs briefly took the lead, before Hello Bud gained the advantage once more. Calgary Bay, who was in touch with the pace, fell at the fourth fence. Held up behind and on the outside of the field, Ornais also departed here; sadly the fall would prove fatal as the horse broke his neck.
All the competitors cleared the fifth fence safely; Santa’s Son now leading the field. However, there was near carnage at the sixth, Becher’s Brook; Or Noir De Somoza fell, as did Dooneys Gate and The Tother One. Unfortunately, West End Rocker was brought down here, Choc having nowhere to go as he landed. In Compliance, Character Building, and What A Friend were hampered by the fallers; King Fontaine made a mistake here. Dooneys Gate, crushed in the melee, sustained a broken back and had to be euthanised.
Santa’s Son continued to lead until the ninth fence, Majestic Concorde then took over. The enigmatic Tidal Bay made an error at the tenth and unseated his jockey, Brian Hughes. One of the greys, Quolibet, unseated at the next. The runners soon set off on the long run to the thirteenth fence, crossing over the Melling Road near Anchor Bridge. Grand Slam Hero fell at this fence; Santa’s Son having taken up the running once more.
Having lost his place and dropped to the rear of the field, Richard Johnson pulled up Quinz; a broken blood vessel the cause. All of the horses cleared the Chair, although Golden Kite made an error here. Ballabriggs took up the running having flown the biggest fence on the course. The field headed over the water jump and set off into the country with one circuit to go; Big Fella Thanks was hampered by a loose horse as the runners headed around the grandstand bend. One loose horse decided he wanted to return to the stables as quickly as possible and cleared the plastic railings surrounding the enclosure in front of our stand!
The next casualty was Can’t Buy Time, who fell at the 18th fence. Then, making history, but not for the right reason, the runners were waived around what should have been the 20th fence. On the landing side of the fence a tarpaulin hid the lifeless body of Ornais. The field cleared the next fence but then further disruption occurred; the jockeys were instructed to bypass Becher’s Brook too. Green screens were erected around the stricken Dooneys Gate.
Ballabriggs still led, with Niche Market now in second place; one time leader Majestic Concorde blundered and unseated his rider at the Canal Turn. Jason Maguire’s mount hit Valentines and, as a result, Niche Market took over at the head of affairs. Having hit 5 out, Killyglen was less fortunate at the next fence and fell; hampering The Midnight Club. This left Oscar Time, ridden by Mr Sam Waley-Cohen, in 3rd position. Another one time leader, Santa’s Son, was pulled up before 4 out, as was What A Friend.
Ballabriggs retook the lead 3 out; last year’s winner Don’t Push It was now in 5th position. In rear, Arbor Supreme fell at this fence. Hello Bud, having tired, was pulled up before 2 out, as was the 2008 winner Comply Or Die; age had caught up with them both; the former 13 years of age, the latter 12.
Heading around the final turn, a group of five runners were clear. Ballabriggs led over the second last, from Oscar Time and Niche Market; Big Fella Thanks was in 4th and Don’t Push It in 5th. Over the last, Jason Maguire set sail for the elbow and home; Oscar Time still his closest pursuer. But despite his best efforts and initially closing on the leader, Sam Waley-Cohen’s mount could find no more as they approached the line, beaten 2¼ lengths.
Last year’s winner, Don’t Push It, completed in third. The very consistent Grand National competitor State of Play stayed on from miles back to finish 4th; 3 attempts – 4th in 2009, 3rd last year and placed again this having not run since last year’s event! Niche Market completed in 5th, Ruby Walsh nursed The Midnight Club home to finish 6th, Big Fella Thanks had faded quickly and finished 7th. 19 finishers.
The full finishing order and details of each competitor’s fate are as follows:
And those which did not finish:
With two fences being bypassed this year due to the fatalities, I have to query what the procedure has been in previous years. The bypasses have been in operation for three years and many fatalities have occurred prior to that, but the race has never had to be stopped because of them. Evidently it used to be the practice to drag the bodies of ‘casualities’ off the course so that the race could continue.
The Grand National is difficult to ‘follow’ when you are at the track, because there is solely a commentary and a big screen to watch (which doesn’t provide the best of viewing). I confess I didn’t pay 100% attention to the big race once Choc was reported as ‘missing in action’ in the carnage at Becher’s Brook.
I was standing behind the gate at the horse-walk exit/entry point, so I knew that West End Rocker came back okay, as he pulled up rider-less in front of me (the horse’s name being sewn onto the saddlecloth). Matt, Alan King’s travelling head lad, collected the horse and spent what seemed like ages gazing in the direction of Becher’s waiting for Choc to appear (presumably to collect his saddle), before giving up and leading the horse away.
I was mighty relieved when Choc finally appeared on the horizon and walked back in unscathed; a group of spectators, just along the walkway from where we were standing, called Choc over to have their photo taken with him before permitting him to proceed back to the Weighing Room.
Being a hot day, the jockeys had been instructed by the veterinary staff to dismount as soon as they crossed the line; which they duly did. There were numerous buckets of water in the unsaddling area in front of the stands; trainers, staff and even jockeys throwing water over the horses to cool them down. Irish jockey, Davy Russell, who had departed at the second fence, was on hand to congratulate Jason Maguire and Donald McCain Jnr; he was commended for throwing cooling water over the winning horse. Trainer Gordon Elliott, a great friend of Jason’s, was also on hand to offer congratulations.
However, it was very strange seeing Jason Maguire returning on foot along the walkway, flanked by two huge cavalry horses! On the walkway in, Ruby congratulated the winning jockey, as did Warren Marston; the latter not having a ride in this year’s race. All the horses were taken directly to the Pre-Parade Ring/stable area to recover from their excursions.
We decided to return to the Winners’ Enclosure area, the steppings were crowded but there was sufficient room to stand not far from the rails around it to see the celebrations and the trophies being presented. Jason’s left hand was taped up having suffered a painful fall on Thursday; he’d dislocated his thumb and had stitches in his elbow.
I’m glad I didn’t see photographs of the Becher’s falls until much later; Barry Geraghty was lucky not to have been hurt, appearing to almost be crushed beneath West End Rocker. It was obvious that a horse (Ornais) had died at the fourth fence, as a tarpaulin covered the animal; but it could have been a jockey or a horse at Bechers (it was Dooneys Gate). On the TV replay, however, in a long distance view back towards Becher’s it was possible to see Choc rise to his feet; on the second circuit one could distinguish two jockeys standing beside a cameraman to the inside of the track, one of whom was Choc.
Watching the TV replay, West End Rocker, who travelled in mid-field slightly towards the inner, had appeared to be a ‘natural’ over the Grand National fences; hopefully he will have success over these larger obstacles at a future date. Alan King confirmed that West End Rocker was unscathed following his mishap and is keen to aim his charge for the 2011 Becher Chase.
It was soon time for the penultimate race of the Festival; a handicap hurdle for Conditional Jockeys and Amateur riders. The start of this race was over in the far corner of the track.
Then they were off. The field was led away, at speed, by Lucaindubai; prominent were Ultimate and Amazing King; followed by Jack Cool, Praxiteles, Gifted Leader and Far Away So Close. The favourite, Plan A, brought up the rear.
As the field headed down the home straight on the first occasion, Lucaindubai continued to lead, almost upsides was the hard pulling Ultimate, and to the outside was Praxiteles; in mid-division Total Excitement flattened the third flight.
Around the grandstand bend, Lucaindubai disputed the lead with Ultimate, from Far Away So Close, Praxiteles, Jack Cool, Gifted Leader, Conquisto, Caught By Witness, Eradicate, Nearby, Tito Bustillo, Total Excitement, Alazan, Amazing King who had lost ground, Ciceron, Caravel, Via Galileo, Gorge, Orzare, Hibiki, and Plan A. (Sorry, but I love to ‘name check’ every horse at some point during a race ... apart from the Grand National where it is too difficult due to there being 40 runners – hence the ‘place’ list and ‘fate’ list at the end.)
Plan A wasn’t fluent at the first flight in the back straight and was now 3 lengths adrift. Far Away So Close led the field over the 5th, from Lucaindubai and Ultimate; Eradicate hit the 6th, the orange protector strip flew from the flight. Around the top bend the Paul Nolan trained Far Away So Close still held the advantage and continued to do so into the home straight; he was followed by Jack Cool, Praxiteles, Total Excitement and the improving Via Galileo.
Flashy bay Jack Cool mounted his challenge approaching two out, and took the lead when Far Away So Close hit this flight. However, the latter wasn’t to be denied and he fought on, rallying under pressure to regain the lead near the finish; he won by a neck. Via Galileo was 14 lengths back in 3rd, with Total Excitement 4th.
The handicap debut for the winner; and proving once more that the Irish runners are very well handicapped when visiting these shores – a 1, 2, 4 for Ireland!
We returned to the Parade Ring to see Choc arrive ahead of his ride aboard Montbazon, confident that we would be able to find a good vantage point within the Earl of Derby enclosure ahead of the race, as the crowds had begun to disperse. Choc’s final opportunity to ride a winner at this year’s Aintree Festival; his mount the 5/2 favourite for this event.
Like the mares’ bumper the previous day, the start of this race was in the far corner of the track; with one and a half circuits to travel.
Then they were off. The field was led away by Distime, Belgium competitor Real Tempo was keen on the wide outside, then came the AP ridden Peckhamecho, Saint Luke, Matthew Riley, Tour D’Argent, Allure of Illusion, Gallox Bridge, Persian Snow, Nuts N Bolts, Montbazon 4 off the rail, Richie Rob, Ebanour, Grandioso, Oscar Magic, Laveroque and Steps To Freedom; in rear were Broadbackbob, Cinders and Ashes and Jonny Delta.
Real Tempo took up the running after a furlong. The keen running Peckhamecho took over at the head of affairs after 3 furlongs, Distime now second, Real Tempo in third. Around the grandstand bend, Choc’s mount was on the outside of the field, in around 10th position, only Richie Rob wider out on the course.
Heading up the back straight the tightly packed field was still led by AP’s mount, from Distime, Real Tempo, Saint Luke, Gallox Bridge, Matthew Riley, and Tour D’Argent; on the outside of the field Richie Rob was hanging a little. With not much room, Allure Of Illusion was shuffled back in the field. Broadbackbob was in last place around the top turn.
Over four furlongs out Peckhamecho was headed by Distime. Choc had made progress to track the leaders and was in fourth position turning into the final straight. Allure Of Illusion had also made significant progress from behind.
Montbazon cruised up between runners over a furlong out, ready to take the lead when Choc pressed the button. However, on the wide outside, Steps To Freedom was also cruising into contention; so, when Choc decided to set sail for home, his rival had the momentum and got ‘first run’. It became a speed dual, with Montbazon soon fighting a losing battle against the Gordon Elliott trained 5-year-old, who won by 2 lengths at the line.
Unfortunate, as Choc would probably have been unaware of Steps To Freedom’s presence; there being 3 horses still upsides Montbazon and shielding his view when his rival arrived on the scene. If he’d known, perhaps Choc would have gone for home sooner; but everyone can be wise in hindsight.
The final race having been completed, we returned to the steps above the Winners’ Enclosure to see Choc arrive back aboard Montbazon. Choc’s mum soon arrived too, standing on the steps immediately in front of us; she was joined shortly afterwards by Choc’s dad.
Having weighed in on the scales by the Winners’ podium; Choc set off back to the Weighing Room. As is so often the case, spectators requested to have their photograph taken with him. I just couldn’t resist going across to speak with him, ‘bad luck’ I said; he shrugged his shoulders; I complimented him on his shorter hair style – which I do like.
The final presentation of the meeting was made to the jockey who’d ridden the most winners during the 3-day fixture; an ‘oversized’ cheque being presented to Barry Geraghty, he’d finished top with 4 victories.
We remained beside the Winners’ Enclosure after the last race; hoping that the crowds would quickly clear. Then we set off to catch the bus, the amount of litter and general rubbish, especially plastic cups was amazing ... and disgusting! Why people don’t respect their environment I just don’t know; I’d feel terribly guilty if I dropped any litter, it’s the way I was brought up. There was even a problem of plastic cups being dropped onto the horse walkway, where they were shattered by passing footfall. Very thoughtless, as any of the horses could have trodden on the shards of plastic and perhaps punctured the sensitive frog area of a hoof. Litter is far less of a problem at all of the other fixtures I’ve attended.
Anyway, racing having been completed for another Grand National fixture, there was no green carpet to protect the course as we walked across it to reach the shuttle bus stop. There was no extended wait in a queue, just a few seconds as the next bus pulled forward to collect us. We were driven around the road on the inside of the track and dropped off by the Melling Road to walk back to collect my car.
Just time to eat a bag (or two in my case) of crisps and a number of Extremely Chocolatey Mini Milk Chocolate Rounds before departing. I ensured that I took the right-hand lane to exit, mindful that last year having joined the left-hand queue I’d been re-directed around the back of the main grandstand to join the Ormskirk Road and as a result I had been caught up in a long tailback of traffic. As always, coaches were given priority to leave; but fortunately I was permitted to return via Anchor Bridge. As suspected, the vehicles in the left-hand lane were again forced to turn left and head back towards the grandstand area to find their exit point. Taking a left turn onto Aintree Lane, we were delayed by the slow phased traffic lights at its junction with the Ormskirk Road. But, once clear of this junction, the road ahead of us was blissfully empty. We negotiated the junction at the beginning of the M57 and set off southwards down the motorway. It was 19:25; 30 minutes later than my departure on this day last year.
Our journey took us to the M62, then eastwards to join the southbound carriageway of the M6. It was dark before we reached Birmingham; we chose not to take the toll road – no need for that extra expense on a quiet Saturday evening – and stopped off briefly at the Hilton Park Service station just north of the metropolis. It proved to be the most run-down service station I’ve ever visited – not recommended! I also removed my contact lenses during this break, as my eyes had begun to feel a little dry.
Back on the road again, our journey took us along the remaining section of the M6; the toll road rejoining to the east. I have to admit I didn’t enjoy driving along this section, as there is no lighting and these days I hate driving in the dark – night vision definitely deteriorates as one grows older!
We soon reached the M1 and set off southwards towards London; counting down the miles to our exit point at Milton Keynes. But, fortunately, this part of the journey was eased by the fact that much of this section of the motorway is lit. As we travelled through Northamptonshire, we found ourselves travelling behind a Racing UK lorry; probably also travelling back from Aintree; although possibly could have been returning from Bangor On Dee!
As I needed to drop Lesley off at her home, we left the M1 at Junction 14 and travelled through Milton Keynes to reach the A5; I have to confess that Lesley was directing me during this section of the journey as every roundabout in Milton Keynes looks the same! We then continued in a southerly direction before taking the Stoke Hammond bypass. However, we were to discover that one section of the route was subject to road-works and was closed on this particular evening. My route thus took me into Leighton Buzzard, where there are a remarkable number if speed restriction bumps; after which we continued south to the village where Lesley lives.
Having dropped her off at home, I returned via Dunstable, Redbourn and Harpenden Common to my home City. I reached my home at 23:30. A whole 95 minutes later than last year; amazing that I could have lost so much time in one service station stop and a diversion to Lesley’s home.
Despite the long journey home and late arrival, I decided to log onto my laptop in the hope of discovering if and where Choc had any riding engagements the following day. The answer was 3 rides at Ascot ... how could I resist? A third consecutive day at the races!
I finally turned in at 02:00 in the morning.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Following the Grand National, in his next Racing Post column, Choc described his day at Aintree:
Choc said he could not have been more pleased with the way that his mount, West End Rocker, coped with the fences, he was loving the ground and was travelling really well. But, having soared over Becher’s Brook, he was confronted by Barry Geraghty’s mount, Or Noir De Somoza, lying on the ground in his path; there was nowhere for them to go and they were brought down. Choc said he had a ‘Wayne Rooney’ moment (a tear or two were shed) when he realised that his dream was over for another year. (Bless his little cotton socks.)
He wrote about the excitement of Grand National day; from the moment he wakes up he hopes that it might be his year. He had ridden a few placed horses on the Thursday and Friday of the meeting but, as winning is everything, he was focused on that as he sweated off the weight in the bath on Saturday morning.
He said Salden Licht ran an excellent race to finish 3rd in the Grade 1 Aintree Hurdle; but he was disappointed by Bensalem’s showing in the Handicap Chase, the horse having made quite a few mistakes on the second circuit. He believes the Cheltenham Festival victory may have taken its toll on the horse.
Choc was pleased to ride in the race prior to the National, as it gave him little time to sit and think about the big race. He mentioned the pre-race photograph – evidently someone accused him of chewing gum during the photo-shoot – he pointed out that he was sucking on an ice cube to ease dehydration.
He said he was relaxed in the Parade Ring, West End Rocker was fine with all the razzmatazz and, unusually, there was no false start. The gallop to the first fence was steady, and he had a fair amount of space around him as he reached it; his mount ‘winged’ the open-ditch (the third) and Choc thought he was in for one hell of a good ride. He cleared the fourth, although another horse bumped into him. The fifth was fine. He was happy with his approach to Becher’s and with the take-off.
But there is no way of knowing what you will find on the other side of the fence and, unfortunately for him, he discovered Barry Geraghty’s fallen mount in his path. To protect himself, Choc curled up into a ball as he hit the deck, and saw West End Rocker get up and gallop away uninjured. Thankfully, he said, both Barry and his mount were fine too.
Once the field had cleared the area, Choc checked that the other fallen jockeys were okay; then he and Ryan Mahon (who had fallen on The Tother One) found a TV cameraman nearby and watched the remainder of the race on his monitor. Choc said he felt gutted, especially as he had been going so well.
He said the fence was dolled off, which had never happened at Becher’s before, and the field headed back in their direction. Evidently one of the loose horses jumped the fence, frightening a lady vet or medic who was stood in the landing side ditch at the time!
Choc was absolutely delighted for the winning jockey Jason Maguire and trainer Donald McCain Jnr, who he describes as great lads. Following the race, one of the ground staff gave Choc and his colleagues a lift back in a minibus. When Choc spoke to one of West End Rocker’s owners he joked that he would have won had he not been brought down. Back in the Weighing Room Choc congratulated Jason, and repeated his joke that he would have won had his luck held out.
And Choc said he was only half joking, because he believed that if luck had been on his side, he just might have won!
Choc then sent his condolences to the connections of the horses who sadly died during the race (Dooneys Gate and Ornais). He knows it is heartbreaking for all those concerned. He also takes time to defend his sport against the animal rights groups; although he accepts their right to hold a different view. But he said it would be nice if they could also respect his and others right to have their own opinion and beliefs too. And he pointed out that, evidently, there were 40 activists demonstrating outside Aintree on Saturday; whilst more than 70,000 spectators were inside watching and enjoying the racing!