THE smile says it all. Keith Mercer has every reason to look back on his Scottish Grand National victory of 10 years ago with palpable pride.
Here was a fresh-faced apprentice taking on – and beating – one of jumping racing’s most illustrious names, Ruby Walsh, in a head-bobbing finish to this prestigious four-mile marathon previously won by totemic horses like Red Rum.
It also provided Mercer and his willing accomplice Joes Edge with a notable claim to fame – their win, by the shortest of short-heads, denied Walsh an improbable ‘grand slam’.
Already victorious in the English, Welsh and Irish Nationals courtesy of Hedgehunter, Silver Birch and Numbersixvalverde, respectively, the mercurial Walsh stood on the brink of steeplechasing history.
He just needed to win Ayr’s feature race of the year aboard the well-fancied Cornish Rebel to become the only horseman to win all four domestic Nationals in the same season, and looked assured of pulling off the feat until Mercer’s mount – trained at West Witton by Ferdy Murphy – prevailed by the proverbial whisker.
“When you are riding, you are only thinking about yourself,” 33-year-old Mercer told The Yorkshire Post. “I got my pleasure from winning the race rather than denying Ruby a ‘grand slam’. To get anywhere near it was something else – I doubt it will ever happen.”
This result was also emblematic of horse racing’s roller-coaster of fortunes. Ten years on, it is Walsh who is still the rider to beat in big races despite his own injury torment – he was irrepressible at last month’s Cheltenham Festival – while the broken bones took their toll on Mercer, the then rising star, who is now retired from the saddle and in the second year of an accountancy and finance degree course at Teesside University.
How times change. “Things are very different now to 10 years ago,” says a philosophical Mercer while revising for his second-year exams.
“I wouldn’t like to guess what I am doing 10 years from now. I wouldn’t rule out training – but under the right circumstances. Yet, whether it is training or running my own company, you need to understand how business works. Everyone needs some knowledge of accounts and finance.
“Do I miss racing? Yes, I miss the way of life. If I spoke to a young rider today, I would remind them that they were making a living out of doing a hobby. You are not in the real world. Now I am in the real world – a job is a job, it is not a hobby.”
They are words of wisdom from an earnest individual who was had to work hard to be successful as both a jump jockey, who recorded 195 career winners, and as a student, whose return to the classroom came 15 years after completing his GCSE exams.
Unlike the aforementioned Walsh, who hails from a storied Irish racing dynasty and who was always destined for a career in racing, his rival on that unforgettable day a decade ago had no roots in the sport.
Born in Southport, and brought up in close proximity to Liverpool, Mercer was motivated by a fascination with the Grand National, the size of the fearsome fences and a burning desire to ride in the world’s greatest steeplechase.
It was this ambition that led to him leaving home to work for Henrietta Knight and her late husband Terry Biddlecombe, a hell-raising champion jockey in his pomp, before heading across the Irish Sea to work for Paddy Mullins, the trainer who masterminded the career of the brilliant Dawn Run.
Yet, with rides and opportunities in short supply, Mercer made the move to North Yorkshire in September, 2003, where he served his apprenticeship before a whirlwind 2004-05 season.
First there was the victory of Truckers Tavern in Wetherby’s feature Rowland Meyrick Chase before Mercer rode over Aintree’s iconic fences and finished second in the Topham Chase on Haut De Gamme.
Then his date with destiny at Ayr on the 20-1 outsider Joes Edge, whom he hunted for two circuits before nursing the Yorkshire hope into contention as Timmy Murphy upped the tempo on future Grand National winner Comply Or Die.
Into the home straight, Double Honour took up the running, with Walsh travelling ominously well on the Paul Nicholls-trained Cornish Rebel, before a coming together of the two horses at the third-last handed the initiative to the tenderly-ridden Joes Edge, who actually led over the final fence and hit the front earlier than planned – he was the ultimate hold-up horse.
“I jumped the last really well but Cornish Rebel came back past me easily and quickly,” recalled Mercer. “I was flat out, trying my best. Half a furlong down, I put my whip down and the horse responded. I honestly hadn’t a clue who had won. I asked Ruby and he said I’d got up by a short head. It was hard to believe that I had just won a Scottish Grand National.”
Even better was to come – an unforgettable season would end with a Grade One win at Punchestown on Murphy’s Carlys Quest. Shrewdly, he used his accumulated winnings from his personal annus mirabilis to purchase his first house.
However, while he did ride in three Grand Nationals and finished fifth in 2009 on rank outsider Cerium, luck soon deserted Richmond-based Mercer – his career stalled when Murphy recruited the enigmatic Graham Lee, now highly successful on the Flat, as stable jockey.
Then the injuries. Mercer broke his right leg at Worcester in August, 2010, when he was unseated prior to a hurdle – and then stamped on by his errant horse as he lay on the turf. “I saw my leg break,” he says matter-of-factly. All his hard work re-establishing his career, and building up contacts, evaporated in the 14 months that he spent on the sidelines following initial surgery on his tendon which was unsuccessful.
When he was back in the groove, there were three falls in quick succession – a broken arm at Cheltenham in December, 2011; a bashed shoulder after he returned to the fray at Leicester and then a wretched, career-ending fall at Kelso on March 3, 2012, that left him with a broken bone, collarbone and badly busted right hand, which will never fully heal from multiple fractures. It could have been worse.
Only now can Keith Mercer appreciate his career-defining win on Joes Edge as the retired rider’s mind switches to those less fortunate weighing-room colleagues who had to quit because of life-changing falls – or those who were left in limbo after hanging up the saddle. Rather than under-achieving, he maintains that he over-achieved in his riding career. The smile returns. “I’m proud of what I did,” he stresses – rightly so.
Velvet touch was the key, says Murphy
FERDY MURPHY, now training in France where he buys and sells horses, says Keith Mercer’s winning ride on Joes Edge had to be seen to be believed.
“He needed a very sympathethic and intelligent ride,” he explained. “You wanted someone who had a velvet touch, and who would wait for the horse to respond.
“We had a couple of owners who liked a gamble and Keith would always deliver – he was a very under-estimated rider. He got the Scottish National to absolute perfection. Davy (Russell) did the same when the horse won the William Hill Trophy at Cheltenham in March, 2007, he won by a short-head and you couldn’t hit the front too soon.”
Murphy was not actually at Ayr on the day in question – he was looking at horses for sale in Dubai. Yet, when the Racing Post reported erroneously that the West Witton trainer was on holiday, Murphy was quick to demand an apology – one which paid unexpected dividends. “People didn’t realise I was at the sales, but the owners didn’t mind and I got a couple of orders as a result of the publicity,” he said.
Pulled up in the 2007 Grand National when 8-1 co-favourite, the horse, now 18, continues to thrive in retirement with his owners, Joe and Chris Massie, and is remembered fondly for two last-gasp wins.