THE poignancy will be palpable if either Paul or Nina Carberry, two of the finest jockeys of any generation, are victorious in next week’s Crabbie’s Grand National.
It will be 40 years since their redoubtable father Tommy triumphed in one of the most evocative Nationals when his mount L’Escargot, the fastest snail in sport, denied the legendary Red Rum a third successive triumph.
Success for either sibling will etch the Carberry name, one of the most respected in the sport, still further into Aintree folklore – it is 16 years since Bobbyjo, trained by Tommy and ridden by Paul, won the world’s greatest steeplechase in scenes of delirious triumph as the winning rider swung from the rafters of the old weighing room.
“We’re due one,” says Carberry senior as he roars with delight as he reminisces about the race and what it means to his family who are pursuing racing careers across Ireland, Britain and France.
The only sadness is that he will not be on Merseyside to watch his daughter bid to become the first female rider to win the race aboard the Mouse Morris-trained First Lieutenant or his mercurial son partner Gordon Elliott’s Cheltenham Festival winner Cause Of Causes. His faltering eyesight is such that he can barely see the television pictures of the 40 horses hurtling over the 30 obstacles in the greatest test of jockeyship.
“If there’s a crowd with me, and they’re all shouting and roaring, I have to call for order so I can hear the commentary,” explained the 73-year-old proud Irishman with the force of personality embedded in his family’s DNA. With the instincts of a horseman, he adds: “I think Cause Of Causes will be in the mix but you don’t know what comes out of the mix until it is all over.”
However, Cause Of Causes is not in the same league as L’Escargot who, bemoans Carberry, never received sufficient credit for his accomplishments.
While the build-up to the 1975 National was dominated by the hat-trick seeking Red Rum and renewed uncertainty about the race’s future, L’Escargot – trained by Dan Moore and owned by Winston Churchill’s cousin Raymond Guest – was seeking to become the first horse since Golden Miller in the 1930s to add the Aintree lottery to the prestige of Cheltenham Gold Cup glory following back-to-back wins in the blue riband race in 1970 and 1971.
With Red Rum backed into 7-2 favouritism, and L’Escargot the only other runner with single-figure odds, Carberry had grounds for optimism – his horse of a lifetime was in receipt of 11lb from the local hero and soft ground was another plus.
There was one other difference. “We deliberately did not run the horse in the Gold Cup so we could save a bit,” Carberry told The Yorkshire Post.
In 1972, L’Escargot came to grief at the third in his first National before being the best of the rest 12 months later when Red Rum and the vanquished Crisp fought out the race of the century. “We were three furlongs behind,” said the rider.
However, Carberry thought he had lost his one chance of National glory in 1974 when Red Rum’s superiority told on the run-in, hence the decision to swerve the Gold Cup in favour of Cheltenham’s two-mile Queen Mother Champion Chase.
It also saw L’Escargot, whose blue and brown colours were carried to Epsom Derby glory by Larkspur and Sir Ivor, earn the distinction of having competed in the Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase, Gold Cup and Grand National. “You can’t imagine the difference it made,” said the rider.
As this photograph shows, horse and jockey were imperious at Becher’s Brook before calamity nearly struck at the next fence – the smallest on the course. “He hit it straight on – and my backside went up in the air – but somehow we survived. It was the only mistake,” said Carberry. “It woke him up.”
There were no more alarms until the third last when L’Escargot was upsides Red Rum and travelling the better of the two horses. “Brian Fletcher on Red Rum shouted at me ‘Go on Tommy, you’ve won a minute’.” The canny Carberry was having none of it. He did not want to give ‘Rummy’ a target to chase, even though the favourite was “carrying a fair lump of bread”.
He waited until the last fence – the pair landed in unison – before striding clear to avenge the defeat of the previous year. “He won by 15 lengths. He hacked up. How many horses do that?” asked Carberry. “It was amazing the difference not running in the Gold Cup made. That won us the race.”
Though L’Escargot only ran once more before being retired, the win helped Carberry complete a famous treble after winning the Gold Cup (Ten Up) and Irish National (Brown Lad) in the same Spring.
It is one record which has proved beyond the reach of 20-times champion jockey AP McCoy, who rides in his final National next Saturday. “I would say he’s worried,” laughs Carberry. “I think he is an exceptional jockey. Whatever he did, he put his mind to it and never let it stray.”
Carberry says the satisfaction was the same when he trained Bobbyjo to win the 1999 National – the first for Ireland since L’Escargot. “Paul took the bull by the horns, the brave man’s route down the inner at half speed most of the way. You do need a clear run and for it all to fall in place. It’s still the ultimate test. L’Escargot ran in every race from a Champion Hurdle (sixth to Persian War) to a National. The horse had ability and loads of it. He always kept a bit for himself. I never gave him a hard race because he wouldn’t put up with it. He was exceptional.”
Just like Tommy Carberry himself.