jason Maguire’s memories of his Grand National triumph are bitter-sweet, even though it should have been the defining moment of his career.
He was unable to ride Ballabriggs, his equine warrior, into the famous winner’s enclosure as the Aintree runners were frantically cooled off to prevent heat exhaustion – the confusion making very uncomfortable television viewing.
The jockey, nephew to the great Adrian Maguire, then became public enemy No 1 when it emerged that he had received a five-day ban for overuse of the whip as Ballabriggs pulled clear of the gallant Oscar Time ridden by Sam Waley-Cohen.
It saw the 29-year-old, a stalwart of Yorkshire jump racing thanks to his successful association with Donald McCain, become vilified by many outside the sport. It was headline news on the BBC, the ride leading to dramatic alterations to the whip rules.
Yet, while he says the victory cannot be taken away from him, he would love to win a controversy-free John Smith’s Grand National a week today on the Trevor Hemmings-owned stayer and become the first horse to win successive renewals of the race since the iconic Red Rum triumphed in 1973 and ’74 for the legendary Ginger McCain, who passed away last autumn.
That Ballabriggs now has a chance to match this feat of endurance is testament to his son Donald’s growing prowess as a trainer – and Maguire’s emergence as a potential successor to record-breaking AP McCoy as champion jockey.
“It would be a great way to remember Ginger, wouldn’t it? I smile when I remember the times when he told me I was no good; you never quite know whether he meant it,” said Maguire.
“His widow Beryl, Mrs McCain, she’s still a big part of the yard but I’ll never forget what Ginger said when Ballabriggs won a year ago. ‘What took you so long?’ It will be great to repay the faith the family have shown me.
“It will be tough. He’s gone up in the weights and that would be my biggest worry, but he’s a big horse – a big stamp of a horse – and if any horse can do it, he’s the one. Mind, he wouldn’t want the ground too soft.
“Last year, my biggest problem was getting him to relax. I had a good position which I didn’t want to lose, so we probably did too much. When we bypassed two fences on the second circuit, it probably helped. I had to take a pull and it got a breather into him.
“He really seemed to attack every fence and even two out, I was still hanging onto him. But once he was off the bridle and straightened up, he really dug deep and he was always going to hang on. He was very tired afterwards, but it was incredible to win on a horse people thought was a doubtful stayer.”
Maguire says every jockey had been ordered beforehand to dismount as soon as they crossed the finishing line because of the heat – and this should have been communicated to TV viewers who were perplexed at water being poured over the horses while the jockey embraced his ecstatic trainer.
His greatest regret, he says, was being unable to ride Ballabriggs under the packed grandstands and into the winner’s enclosure. “It’s what every rider dreams of – I’ll just have to win the race again.”
Maguire, whose relaxed demeanour masks a steely determination, is still bitter – however – about the whip ban that he incurred, one that led to the perception of him being a whip-happy jockey.
He accepts it was his second offence within six weeks; he had to resort to legal action to ride Peddlers Cross to second place in the 2011 Champion Hurdle after being banned by the Doncaster stewards.
“To be fair, a lot of jockeys were being banned at the time – but the one everyone remembers is me,” he added. “It was unfortunate, but Donald’s horses are tough and you have to keep riding to the line. What would have been the reaction if I’d been collared on the line?
“People said I’d be one of the first to fall foul of the tightened rules but, touch wood, I’ve been grand. Yes, I have changed, I’m trying to keep count while I race, because I can see the headlines if I’m caught out.”
The task facing Ballabriggs and Maguire is made even more formidable by the increasing likelihood that Synchronised, the mount of AP McCoy, will bid to become the first combination to complete the Cheltenham Gold Cup and National double in the same season since Golden Miller in 1934.
“This is his game, his distance – and I might never have him in this form again,” said Synchronised’s trainer Jonjo O’Neill, yesterday. “The four-week gap after Cheltenham is a big advantage and he came out of it buzzing. Logically, he should run. If he’d finished second, third or fourth in the Gold Cup, there wouldn’t even be a discussion. You just want to put him in a glass cage so nothing happens to him.”
With the handicap framed before the Gold Cup, Synchronised – heading the weights at 11st 10lb – has just one more pound to carry than last year’s Aintree victor.
While Synchronised had the stamina and speed to win at Cheltenham, Ballabriggs has never been considered a Gold Cup contender – his one outing this season was a modest race at Kelso where he was fourth behind, among others, Yorkshire’s National hope According To Pete.
Maguire continues his relentless pursuit of Richard Johnson in the jockeys’ championship at Haydock today so he can enjoy the kudos of finishing second to McCoy in this year’s title race.
“I’d love to be champion one day, but they’re two great riders – and you just have to keep pushing yourself,” he said.
Maguire, on the 138-winner mark, is eight behind Johnson following a memorable season on the likes of battle-hardened hurdler Overturn and Cinder and Ashes, the Supreme Novices Hurdle winner at last month’s Cheltenham Festival.
While Overturn, he says, may not win hurdling’s top prize, he does regard Cinders and Ashes as a champion in the making. While both have more class than Ballabriggs, he says the National is still the race that every jockey wants to win. “I can’t wait, I schooled the horse this week and couldn’t be happier. It’s all systems go,” he said.