There is a calm serenity around Ryan Mania as he prepares for his bid to become the first jockey in 40 years to win successive renewals of the Grand National.
Victorious 12 months ago at the first attempt aboard Sue Smith’s now-retired Auroras Encore, he is unfazed by the attention as he puts stablemate Mr Moonshine through his paces before Saturday’s showpiece that will be worth £1m for the first time since the race’s inception in 1839.
“I am under no pressure at all,” the 25-year-old tells The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview. “It feels like last year. We’re going for a bit of fun.
“If you take a race like the National too seriously, it will fry your head. My dad drove me down to Aintree last year and I slept a fair bit on the way down.
“We got there and his face was white. ‘What’s wrong with you?’ I asked. It was the nerves and pressure, but I didn’t feel anything. I had every faith with Auroras that he would look after me – and we would have a lot of fun together. And we did.
“To me, it feels no different to last year – like Auroras, Mr Moonshine is one of the horses that people have forgotten about. He’s a 50-1 shot, but he should never be that price.
“Last year, I knew Auroras would stay. It was whether he would take to it. This year I know Mr Moonshine will take to it. I don’t know if he will stay the four miles, three furlongs and a bit.
“If he stays, he has a serious chance.”
Mania is speaking in the bar of The Dick Hudsons, the hostelry high up on Bingley Moor where Auroras Encore was paraded the morning after his shock 66-1 win last year and just hours before Mania was being airlifted to hospital with neck and back injuries after a crashing fall at Hexham.
However, there is no recognition from regulars, a reflection of the fact that the world of horse racing is still very distant from the glamour of professional football.
There is also no chance of any indulgence on the jockey’s part – he is on a diet largely consisting of fresh air to help keep his weight in check for two rides the following afternoon.
“It’s not a glamorous job. You try to do a physical job on very little food and drink,” he says.
From that perspective, Mania’s life has not changed in the past year. The one difference, however, is that he has become a more confident horseman – this is self-evident when you see him in the saddle – who is on the brink of riding his 50th winner of the season, a new personal best.
He hopes the landmark will come aboard Sandy Thomson’s progressive Seeyouatmidnight in tomorrow’s Grade One novice hurdle at Aintree – or on Mr Moonshine who runs in the same blue and yellow colours of Auroras Encore.
Has the National changed Mania?
“I would like to say it has matured me,” says the rider, who still displays some of the self-doubt that saw him walk away from the sport because of a lack of opportunities before resuming his career when teaming up with Smith, and her showjumper husband Harvey, at their High Eldwick stables.
“It’s made me more of a senior jockey. I will never be great at it, but I have a bit more belief in my abilities. I am always putting myself down, but I do have more belief in what I am capable of. I am hoping my tally of winners is proof of that and shows the National was no fluke.
“It never entered my head that I’d have a chance of getting to 50 winners. This is the bread and butter, the National is just a bonus. If I had got to 30, I would have been happy.”
Given a Shetland pony by his parents when he was just three, horses were his life.
Mania would spend every spare hour common riding in the Scottish Borders, a centuries-old tradition from the days the Celts tried to keep the English at bay.
Yet his interest in a career in racing was only piqued nine years ago when Hedgehunter won the National under Ruby Walsh. “I remember riding point-to-point with Kelly Bryson, a leading amateur rider,” he said.
“We were riding together and my goal was to ride in the National by the age of 21. I just wanted to ride in the National, not to win it, because that was so unrealistic.”
Not only did Mania win the race at his first attempt, but it was also his first win at the Merseyside track.
While it means the world to his family who still become emotional watching replays of the race, the jockey says he may begin finally to appreciate the significance of the win if he loses on Saturday.
“If I don’t win it this season then I think it might finally sink in as so far it hasn’t really,” says Mania, who believes the biggest threat to Mr Moonshine could come from the Smith-trained Vintage Star which will be ridden by Brian Hughes.
“I’ll probably be a bit depressed because I am no longer the Grand National-winning jockey.
“Part of me will be disappointed because it is the end of a brilliant year.
“But don’t write off Mr Moonshine. He was pulled up last year but he’s a better horse this year. He’s another year older. He’s won good races at Musselburgh and Warwick, and you hope he has found another bit of improvement. I just need to get him into a rhythm. He’s different to Auroras. Moonshine is a bit flashier, Auroras is more of a workhorse. He’s a bit more delicate the way you ride him, Auroras was just very tough.
“I think Vintage Star is the future. I didn’t want to make a decision until after Cheltenham, but his owner Trevor Hemmings wanted a decision before Cheltenham.
“It was a close call, believe me. It just may be a year too early for him.
“But Mr Moonshine ran a blinder in the Becher Chase last December to finish third. He’s in great form and jumps for fun. He’s the forgotten horse.”
Just like Auroras Encore.
Getting to know more about Mania ....
On his inspiration: Samantha Kinghorn is a wheelchair racer whose courage is helping to inspire the jockey.
Since winning the National, he has become honorary patron of the Rowan Boland Trust in Galashiels which raises money for young sports people.
“I’ve met a lot of inspirational people, and Samantha is someone who stands out,” said Mania. “She was shovelling snow at her home when it started sliding off the roof and paralysed her. She was just 14.
“She’s so open about the whole thing. She’s 18, but she’s competing for Great Britain and it’s very humbling when you’re asked to become patron of a charity like this. It puts everything into perspective.”
On Andy Murray: In a quirk of history, Ryan Mania was the first Scottish-born jockey to win the Grand National since the amateur rider David Campbell won on The Soarer in 1896.
Coincidentally Andy Murray’s Wimbledon triumph last summer was the first time that a Scot had won the men’s singles title at the All England Lawn Tennis Club since Harold Mahony.
The year? 1896.
“He’s won a lot of the sports awards that I managed to be shortlisted for,” said Mania. “I’d love to meet Andy Murray and talk to him as a sportsman about his career and how he handles pressure.”
On Aururoas Encore: The rider is relieved that Auroras Encore will not defend his National crown after sustaining a career-ending leg injury at Doncaster.
“It’s obviously disappointing that he won’t be there this year, but in a strange way it takes the pressure off – if something had happened to him at Aintree, being a former winner all hell would have broken loose,” he said.
“People need to realise injuries can happen anywhere, not just Aintree and Cheltenham, but because they are the meetings everybody watches, everything is blown up.”