Leighton Aspell clearly made a wise decision to make a U-turn from retirement as the jockey in his most successful season to date rose to incredible new heights when Pineau De Re forged five lengths clear of Balthazar King in the Crabbie’s Grand National at Aintree.
A reserved character, Irishman Aspell felt he missed the challenge and the camaraderie of the weighing room as he returned from an 18-month hiatus exactly five years ago.
Thankfully all horses and riders returned safely in what was still a typically eventful renewal, and Aspell had a charmed trip through the field on the 25-1 chance, who comes from the respected Worcestershire stable of Dr Richard Newland, who trains only 12 horses at any one time for what he describes as a hobby.
Eighteen of the 40 intended starters completed the four-and-a-half miles, with Battle Group refusing to participate after a false start, but Tony McCoy’s mount Double Seven (10-1 joint-favourite) fared best of the fancied runners as former Gold Cup hero Long Run fell at Valentine’s on the first circuit and last year’s third and other market leader Teaforthree unseated his rider at The Chair (15th).
Pineau De Re has only been with Newland for a year, having been sold by Barry Connell from Philip Fenton’s yard due to lack of opportunities in Ireland, but he had easily won a veterans’ chase in January and proved his well-being by finishing third in the Pertemps Final over hurdles at the Cheltenham Festival.
In the most notable incident of the race, long-time leader Across The Bay was very nearly carried out by a loose horse as the field headed out for the second circuit, effectively ending his chance of victory.
Aspell was relaxed in behind the leaders and then had eventual fifth Rocky Creek in his sights, kicking clear well before The Elbow and always seeming to have the measure of both the cross-country specialist Balthazar King (14-1), and Double Seven, while Alvarado stayed on from a long way back to finish fourth at 33-1.
“I was second on my first National ride in 2003 on Supreme Glory, came off a few times and did get around again but this was the first ride I’ve had since 2003 that I thought had a live chance,” said Aspell, 37.
“I was very excited and he took to it very well. I was a bit closer than I planned as the pace was only medium but I had a lovely passage all the way. We got close at a couple, but that’s the National.”
Referring to his retirement, he said: “It was in the summer, I was a bit low and it didn’t look good, rides-wise. I should have just taken the summer off and freshened up but I took a job with (now-retired trainer) John Dunlop.
“I was there for a few months and it was a good job, but I felt there was some unfinished business and some life in the old dog.
“I’ve been watching the National since I was a very young boy. As much as you enjoy sharing everyone’s success, you crave a bit too.
“To get a chance to ride in the National is a great thing, and to get on one with a chance is even better.”
Newland used to own horses with other trainers and was until recently still actively working as a GP at his business, Newhall Medical Practice in Birmingham.
He sold the horse to his old friend, John Provan, who runs a print and packaging business but was once an amateur rider.
Newland’s biggest previous winner was in the 2007 Coral Cup at Cheltenham and he said: “When something like this happens you think perhaps I should stop now, as it won’t get any better than this.
“When I got him he was 10, he’s 11 but he doesn’t act like an 11-year-old. He’s a classy, classy horse and he has the combination of stamina and a touch of speed.
“This is a hobby for me, really, and I have no plans to change anything at the minute. I’m involved in a few businesses, I have great colleagues at Newbridge and I’m lucky enough to be able to do this and enjoy it. If you do it as a job there’s a higher level of stress.
“I feed the horses in the morning, harrow the gallop and leave instructions for the day. The team are great and John’s my oldest racing friend. I knew I’d be able to sell the horse to him within 30 seconds.
“For us to have one running in the National was a dream and to win it is unspeakable really.
“We have one running in a selling handicap at Market Rasen tomorrow!”