Aspell finally gets his chance to be the first among equals

Tom Richmond meets the Richmond-based Irish jockey Paddy Aspell ahead of his first tilt for Grand National glory on board the Jimmy Moffatt-trained Chief Dan George.

THERE is little in common between Grand National jockeys AP McCoy and Paddy Aspell – apart from the fact that each has a three-year-old daughter besotted with racing.

Tomorrow will be the record-breaking McCoy’s 16th National as he seeks successive wins on Don’t Push It while the race could be Aspell’s first – and only – chance of Aintree glory.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

With Aspell’s mount Chief Dan George already a veteran at 11 years of age, this journeyman jockey, who lives in North Yorkshire, may never ride another horse that is good enough to compete in the world’s biggest steeplechase.

For, while McCoy is closing in on his 3,500th career winner, Aspell has recorded a more modest 160 National Hunt victories since moving from County Kildare to Sue and Harvey Smith’s Bingley yard in the 1998-99 season.

This is a horseman, as dedicated as the champion and facing the same risks whenever he comes under starter’s orders, who rides on the Flat circuit in Yorkshire during the summer to maintain fitness, keep his weight under control and pay the bills.

In many respects, his endurance and humility at the grassroots of his sport is the epitome of National Hunt racing – very few people become financially secure through their involvement with the sport.

Yet tomorrow, as the tapes go up and the 40-runner field gallop to the first of 30 obstacles, Aspell and McCoy will be equals – each requiring the same element of luck and endurance in the most challenging and unpredictable race of them all.

In the meantime, Aspell simply hopes that he, and 40-1 chance Chief Dan George, reach Aintree after falling heavily at last month’s Cheltenham Festival.

“It will mean a lot on the day, but I’m not a person to get excited in advance,” said Aspell, whose older brother, Leighton, rides In Compliance for top Irish trainer Dessie Hughes.

“I just like to get there in one piece, the horse in one piece and then I will start to take it all in. I would like a reasonable start, get over Becher’s, and take it from there.

“If he is on a going day, he will travel great. The drying ground will help. He’s a very hard-nosed horse. Though a bit quirky, he doesn’t shy away from much.

“I haven’t ridden much tougher and I’d rather ride in the National than in a show-jumping ring – he’s very, very brave.”

So, too, is Aspell, who left home at the age of 16 to work at the Smith’s windswept stable on Bingley Moor and learn off the show-jumping great who used to ride out regularly. “The best place to learn. Hard graft but really fair.”

After three-and-a-half years, and in search of more opportunities, he moved to Mary Reveley’s Saltburn yard and then onto John Wade in County Durham before going freelance.

Yet, while he has enjoyed moderate success – such as a Durham National win on Wade’s Devil’s Run in 2006-07 – it is Chief Dan George, trained in the Lake District by the unsung Jimmy Moffatt, that is defining Aspell’s career.

He has known the horse’s owner Maurice Chapman for many years, paving the way for Aspell to ride the bay gelding to victory at Catterick in February, 2009 when the horse’s previous jockey, Richie McGrath, was sidelined with injury.

“Me and the horse have a long history,” explained Aspell, who will be cheered tomorrow by his partner, Donna Caldwell, a Flat jockey, and their excited daughter Lilly, who can spot the horse’s white face “a mile off”.

“I was riding him out for his next run. He dumped me at the bottom of the gallop and I broke my leg. He was going to run at Kelso and I heard on the grapevine that I’d lose the ride if I wasn’t back in time. I was.

“We were then fifth in the Scottish National which was won by Hello Bud, and who went on to give 17-year-old Sam Twiston-Davies a great National spin last year.”

The following year saw Chief Dan George and Aspell land a veterans’ race at Doncaster before recording a famous 33-1 win in the William Hill Trophy at the 2010 Cheltenham Festival.

It was an inspired ride – worthy of McCoy at his best – as they held off the late and relentless challenge of Timmy Murphy on The Package.

The victory, so unexpected, even saw all-weather racing at Southwell delayed while the Flat riders waited to see if their friend and rival could prevail. That was a measure of racing’s respect for Aspell.

Yet, because the 2010 National weights had been published the previous month, Chief Dan George was not sufficiently handicapped to make the race last year.

Instead, connections have had to wait 12 months and now go into the Grand National following the first fall in the horse’s 45-race career.

Having schooled Chief Dan George recently, Aspell is still optimistic.

“If you’d asked me the other morning, I would have been hopeful,” added the Richmond rider, who was third on Bannister Lane when he rode over the National fences in the 2007 Grand Sefton for Donald McCain.

“Having sat on him, he’s a live outsider who I wouldn’t swap. It’s an opportunity of a lifetime – it may not come around again – so I’m going to enjoy it.”

One thing is certain, it is unlikely to change Aspell’s life. For, whatever happens, the injury-plagued jockey – he broke a leg again last summer – will be plying his trade on the Flat this summer.

The 2010 National may have defined McCoy’s career but this year’s renewal will be just another milestone in the career of journeyman jockey Paddy Aspell as horse, owner, trainer and rider prepare for, potentially, the most memorable day of their lives.