IF Neptune Equester wins tomorrow’s John Smith’s Grand National for Yorkshire, it will be a classic case of beginner’s luck.
He is Malton trainer Brian Ellison’s first runner in the world’s greatest steeplechase – and a debut ride in the race for rookie jockey Felix de Giles.
Even more remarkably, de Giles will only sit on the nine-year-old chaser for the first time when the 40 runners parade before the starting tape goes up.
Yet the 23-year-old rider sounds nerveless.
“I’m very happy... it is my first ride so it is a bit of a milestone. Hopefully, we can go and win it,” he told the Yorkshire Post.
Neptune Equester only made the 40-runner cut yesterday morning when Always Waining and Le Beau Bai were withdrawn – the former runs in the Topham Trophy today while conditions are not deemed soft enough for the latter.
Though a 150-1 outsider in a race headed by AP McCoy’s Cheltenham Gold Cup hero and last year’s National winner Ballabriggs, Ellison is adamant that his horse is not going to Aintree to make up the numbers – even though his staying chaser, owned by Koo’s Racing Club, was a distant fifth in the Grimthorpe Chase at Doncaster last month.
This trainer, a Geordie who is even more proud of his roots following the resurgence of his beloved Newcastle United, loves to target the major handicaps around the world on the Flat and over the jumps.
He still dreams of winning his home-town Northumberland Plate as much as the National but he did win last year’s Ebor at York with Moyenne Corniche, who was then unplaced, along with stablemate Saptapadi, in the Melbourne Cup.
“I must be the only man to have runners in the Ebor, Melbourne Cup and National – certainly in the same year,” said a relieved Ellison, whose Norton yard is a short canter from the stables where Malcolm Jefferson is training According To Pete for the big race.
“The hardest part seems to be making the cut. I couldn’t be happier with the horse – I’ve thought, for some time, that he’s an Aintree horse. Just get over the first few fences, and into a nice rhythm, and he’ll be fine. He jumps and he stays – and that’s what you’ll need tomorrow.”
His confidence is shared by de Giles, who has won a career-best 43 races this season, including a high-profile victory aboard Sound Accord at Haydock last Saturday for Ellison.
The polite 23-year-old has been the primary beneficiary from Danny Cook’s long-term absence with a knee injury, though he did ride for Ellison when he was a conditional attached to Nicky Henderson’s yard.
However, the career of de Giles has only started to take off in the past year since he became stable jockey to Charlie Longsdon, a hugely ambitious – and in-form – trainer.
So far, he has been able to keep both Longsdon and Ellison happy and says he will be more than happy to become a Newcastle United fan if Neptune Equester prevails.
“That I haven’t ridden Neptune before is not an issue. I’m confident that he will jump well – and I’m confident Brian will have him spot on,” said de Giles, who joined Henderson’s yard after completing his A-levels.
“There are very few people in better form than Brian, which is another plus. Yes, there are better horses in the race – but he’s off a low weight and there are others who will struggle to stay the four- and-a-half miles. If we have a clear round, I certainly think we’re good enough to run into a place.”
De Giles was unplaced when he rode Forzy Origny for Yorkshire owner Sir Robert Ogden in last year’s Topham Trophy over the National fences, experience that will stand him in good stead.
“Horses want to look after themselves and I think it is important for them to do the jumping their own way,” he explained. “If you overdo it, that’s when falls and accidents happen.”
De Giles has enjoyed a lifetime with horses – he was a regular on the show-jumping and eventing circuit before joining Henderson’s yard after completing his A-levels.
He also hopes that a big ride will take his career to the next level. “You can’t get the big rides until you’ve ridden the big winners – and there are none bigger than the National. For me, it is one step closer to the top – now I’ve got to go and do it.”
If only winning the Grand National is as straightforward as Felix de Giles makes it sound.