David Bass has been obsessed with the Grand National since watching the race as a six-year-old. Now he can make Aintree history if Doncaster winner The Last Samuri puts his rivals to the sword in today’s race. Tom Richmond reports.
DAVID BASS is still pinching himself that he is riding one of the favourites for the Crabbie’s Grand National – still the world’s greatest steeplechase.
This is the jump jockey entrusted with the mount on The Last Samuri who was a runaway winner of Doncaster’s prestigious Grimthorpe Chase early last month.
Yet Bass can still remember vividly the moment when he became obsessed with the most arduous race of call.
It was 1994 – the year Richard Dunwoody, one of the greatest jockeys of all, prevailed on Minnehoma after a thrilling tussle up the long Aintree run-in with the doughty Just So.
“I was just six. I used to be quite obsessed with Dunwoody,” Bass told The Yorkshire Post. “My dad used to get home each year, draw the curtains and take the phone off the hook.
“I used to love it and I got my love for the race off him. I wasn’t riding at that point, I may have had a pony, but I definitely didn’t think that the day would come when families would tune in to watch me ride the National.”
Yet this only tells part of the story.
The likable 27-year-old, who is enjoying a career best season thanks to his association with horses like top novice hurdler Barters Hill, was not born to be a jockey.
Quite the contrary. His mother Rowena is a vicar who teaches and plays the harp; his father Philip teaches the viola and violin in Northampton and his youngest sister Elizabeth is a nationally-acclaimed harpist.
Bass, who grew up in Northamptonshire, could have followed in the family footsteps as he was a drummer with a punk band. Yet racing’s gain became music’s loss, even more so after the then-teenager started going to point-to-point races with his father and grandfather Albert before a family outing to Stratford Racecourse convinced him to go to the British Racing School to train to become a jockey.
He soon became an integral member of top trainer Nicky Henderson’s team in Lambourn – Bass has ridden for the Queen and partnered Sprinter Sacre when the superstar steeplechaser made a winning debut over larger obstacles at Doncaster.
He’s now on the 50-winner mark for the current campaign thanks to his association with Ben Pauling, the trainer of Barters Hill, and Kim Bailey, who has sent The Last Samuri last autumn when businessman Paul Rooney removed his under-performing horses from the yard of former National-winning trainer Donald McCain.
Bailey, based near Cheltenham, is no stranger to Aintree glory. His Mr Frisk prevailed in a course-record time in 1990. The trainer also won the Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle with Master Oats and Alderbook respectively before his career went into a tailspin before being revived by horses like Harry Topper, victorious in Wetherby’s 2013 Charlie Hall Chase, and The Last Samuri.
The 62-year-old’s infectious enthusiasm – he writes a daily blog which he describes as a “p*** take on life” – has clearly rubbed off on Bass after they were challenged by the Rooneys to win the National with his horse.
Third to Sue and Harvey Smith’s highly-regarded Wakanda at Newcastle, the most important race of The Last Samuri’s campaign came at Kempton’s Christmas meeting when an eyecatching win against a competitive field secured a sufficiently high handicap mark which guaranteed a place in today’s 40-runner field.
However, the horse was seen to even better effect when winning the Grimthorpe Chase by 10 lengths from The Druids Nephew who heads back to Aintree looking to atone for last year’s mishap when he parted company with jockey Aidan Coleman while leading the field.
Yet, because the National weights were confirmed before the Grimthorpe, they do not reflect the emphatic manner of the Doncaster win. If they did, The Last Samuri would be saddling an additional 12lb rather than a very competitive 10st 8lb – more than a stone less than the weight allotted to last year’s victor Many Clouds.
No wonder Bass can’t wait for the potential ride of his life – and the chance to join his racing heroes like Dunwoody who won the first of his two Nationals 30 years ago on West Tip and whose colours will be carried today by the Philip Hobbs-trained Onenightinvienna.
“I’m very excited,” he said. “I’ve had two rides – Shakalakaboomboom two years ago. He was pulled up, he was probably past his best, and The Rainbow Hunter last year who gave me a great ride before falling five out.
“It’s such a hard race just to get into. To get a ride in the race is good. To have a ride on one with a good chance is brilliant.
“When The Last Samuri was at McCains, he was seen as a potential National horse. To be honest when he first came to Kim’s, he was quite highly strung and quite buzzy. The lad at the yard, Charles, rides him at home and has done a great job switching him off.
“At Newcastle, he needed the run but he’s just kept improving – Kempton and then Newcastle. He’s just got better.
“He’s a careful jumper and I don’t see the trip being a problem.”
Yet Bass is the first to admit that he is only in this position thanks to the whole team at the resurgent Bailey yard, including the trainer, his assistant Matt Nicholls and former National-winning jockey Jason Maguire who became racing manager to The Last Samuri’s owners after his career was bedevilled by injuries, including one life-threatening fall two years ago.
“Kim has been there and done it, which gives you confidence,” explained Bass. “He knows what it takes. He’s got a very good assistant with Matt. Every trainer needs a good back-up team.
“The thing with Kim is that he’s brilliant with the PR side. Even people not interested in racing read his blog, even if it is just for the jokes. It’s mad. He’s brilliant at getting new owners and the quality of horses in the yard is only getting better.”
As for riding advice, Bass will seek the counsel of Maguire who prevailed in 2012 on Ballabrigg. In a twist of irony, this horse hailed from The Last Samuri’s former yard.
Maguire is so enthusiastic that he can be regularly heard screaming at his riders at the final fence.
Yet Bass is also conscious that the race has changed out of all recognition since Ballabriggs won.
Modifications to the fences mean that more horses seek to save ground by going down the inner at Becher’s Brook and the Canal Turn, the sharpest bend in racing, rather than spreading out across the whole course when his hero Dunwoody was navigating his way around Aintree on Minnehoma and West Tip.
It only adds to his sense of anticipation as the jockey’s whole family travel to Aintree to watch the race live rather than hide behind the back of the sofa. “It’s the first time I will have God on my side!” joked Bailey when he learned that his rider’s mother is a member of the clergy.
As for David Bass, he has been waiting two decades for this one chance to make National history. “People ask which race you most want to win and I have always said the National,” he added.
“Some will say the Gold Cup but, to me, the National is one of my earliest memories and is the race that got me hooked.”