HOW times change. As Leighton Aspell bids to become the first jockey in history to win three successive Grand Nationals, it is even more astonishing to think that this quietly unassuming horseman walked away from the sport in 2007 because of disillusionment and a lack of opportunities.
The break clearly refreshed him and brought a new perspective as he embarked upon the comeback to beat all comebacks.
Vindicated when Aspell won the 2014 National on Pineau De Re – he was handed the ride because he was the only jockey who had the foresight, and nous, to contact trainer Dr Richard Newland in person – it is Many Clouds which is taking the modest 39-year-old’s career to new heights.
This is the horse that won a three-runner chase at Wetherby in December 2013 before landing Newbury’s Hennessy Gold Cup the following year and then defying top weight to win last year’s National.
With Oliver Sherwood’s stable star just 1lb higher in the handicap this year, Many Clouds has an outstanding chance to become the first horse – since the legendary Red Rum – to win successive renewals of this marathon.
It would also see Aspell surpass the record of Brian Fletcher who rode Red Rum to victory in 1973, the year the luckless Crisp was collared on the line, and 1974 before finishing second on Ginger McCain’s horse of a lifetime the following year.
Yet the quietly-spoken Aspell, a proud family man who lives in Sussex, is just taking today’s test in his stride after earning the respect of his weighing room colleagues – and racing – with his ‘second coming’ in the saddle.
“I am so glad that I did change my mind. When I did return it gave me a massive appreciation of it and I was going to cherish it and take it with both hands,” he said.
“I was working for trainer John Dunlop in that time away from racing. It started out as a riding out job to fill a gap, then there was an opportunity as pupil assistant.
“He was a great bloke to work for, he had trained Derby winners, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, but there was a niggling doubt in the back of my mind that I should still be riding. There was no one moment, it was just in the back of my mind. It was a question of just having the courage to go and make that decision.
“I put some feelers out with owners, trainers and my family and everyone was very positive about it. It was probably something I should have done earlier, but that’s history now. It was 18 or 19 months before I got my career back on track, but I am very glad it happened.”
Even Aspell was taken aback by the imposing manner of last year’s win on Many Clouds as Trevor Hemmings became the first owner to win the National with three different horses – his white, yellow and green colours had been previously carried to glory by Hedgehunter in 2005 and Ballabriggs in 2011.
Disappointed with the horse’s below-par run in the Gold Cup, he felt Many Clouds came alive at Aintree – the only concern came moments after passing the winning line when his hero wobbled with exhaustion.“I was patting him on the neck at Cheltenham. He was so calm and quiet he was just a bit off that day. Early in the Gold Cup I was flat out and Many Clouds isn’t slow,” explained Aspell.
“As soon as I got on him at Aintree, he had that spring in his step. The whole occasion, he just grew.”
As for this season, Many Clouds was disappointing in Wetherby’s Charlie Hall Chase – the horse was not sufficiently race-sharp, though the form worked out well when the resurgent winner Cue Card went on to win three Grade One chases, including Thursday’s Betfred Bowl at Aintree.
Two battling second-place finishes, at Aintree last December and Cheltenham towards the end of January, were then followed up by an impressive win at Kelso after connections opted to swerve this year’s Gold Cup.
At the Scottish Borders track, Many Clouds jumped for fun and Aspell couldn’t be happier with preparations ahead of his day of destiny.
“Last year he had a very tough season. Some horses would have an equally tough season and would not be the same, but he actually seems to have improved for it,” added the jockey who is not convinced that the Paul Nicholls-trained dual King George winner Silviniaco Conti will have sufficient stamina for such a marathon test.
“There is no added pressure on the riding history side of it. I am preparing for it as I would do any other race. I will try to stay relaxed and get a good night’s sleep.
“I’m just feeding off the confidence in Many Clouds. He ticks all the right boxes – ability and stamina-wise. We’ve just got to keep him in the best possible shape and I am sure he will give it his best shot. I am very happy riding what I am riding.”
He should be. He already has two Grand National wins to his name when many riders would settle for just one ride in the race.