Yet, in the 181-year history of the world’s greatest steeplechase, nothing will beat the emotional exhilaration of Auroras Encore’s win on April 6, 2013.
It was the day ‘Harvey Smith won the Grand National’ – six words that I thought I would never write. Or say.
Growing up in the 1970s, he was the show-jumper and the National the race thanks to a little horse called Red Rum whose three wins helped to keep Aintree open.
Red Rum was also a personal saviour. His name simple to say when picking a selection – I needed speech therapy at the time. The same with Peter Easterby’s hurdler Night Nurse (Sea Pigeon was more troubling).
But a lifelong passion had been kindled – the racing pages were always the first I turned to in the daily paper – and it became a labour of love when I joined The Yorkshire Post in 2004.
The dream was to cover the first Yorkshire winner of the Aintree marathon since Merryman II in 1960. I reported the hard-luck stories – and the loss of According To Pete, one of two fatalities in the 2012 race, was shattering.
It is why expectations were low the following year when braving blizzards to watch Auroras Encore and stablemate Mr Moonshine complete their preparations.
However, it was not a case of turning up and watching – trainer Sue Smith and her redoubtable husband’s trust had been hard-earned. Phone calls became more frequent as we tried to establish if the two horses would make the 40-runner cut. Confusion reigned at times, sometimes my fault.
But, believe me, just being on the gallops on Baildon Moor, four days before the off, meant more to me as a journalist than interviewing Prime Ministers.
I had also never been so cold. Snow still falling, the wind chill penetrating, as Smith himself battled, manfully, to keep the gallops open. It was frosty, too, in the trainer’s car as the horses cantered past. “I’m packing it in,” she said. “It’ll be okay when you win,” I replied nervously. She shook her head.
The hope was that all 40 horses would return unharmed after the two previous renewals had been marred by equine tragedy. Then Auroras Encore, on the final gallop, strode clear. Smith leapt out of her Jeep. “That Auroras, he’s in right order,” she said. Her husband, watching from his quad bike, agreed. “He’s rippin’.”
Bought from Doncaster Sales in 2006 for £9,000, an expensive purchase by Smith’s standards, because he liked the horse’s confirmation, the Moor’s contours were made for developing stamina. He knew Auroras would stay the marathon four-mile plus National trip after finishing second in the 2012 Scottish National, but was the horse good enough?
Written off by every national newspaper, jockey Ryan Mania, riding in his first National, looked calm and the sun was shining at last (Auroras preferred warm weather). Finally the off. A huge cheer as the whole field cleared the first and then Becher’s Brook. Despite safety modifications, the fences still looked fearsome and the line-up was formidable.
From the top of a stand, I missed the 11-year-old Auroras clear The Chair and Water Jump in front of me (sorry Ryan) as my eyes turned to AP McCoy and Colbert Station coming down to the despair of punters.
The commentary inaudible, I honestly thought Auroras was out of the race before finally spotting the unheralded 66-1 outsider up with the pace on the run back to Becher’s.
I was transfixed – and tense, my eyes now not deviating away from the distinctive blue and yellow colours. They cleared Becher’s and then took a cut at the Canal Turn to make up ground. Steady, Ryan.
The next saw On His Own and Ruby Walsh come down. One less favourite to worry about Ryan, I thought uncharitably.
A minor mishap at the fourth last. Come on, Ryan. Better at the 28th where Oscar Time makes his move for victory. My hopes ebb. But Auroras is still third, four lengths down, as Teaforthree takes it up at the second last for Wales. The dream’s still alive. Just.
Then the moment. A rallying third heading to the last, Auroras Encore lands in the lead for the first time as Teaforthree hampers the tiring Oscar Time. “Go on Ryan,” I shriek. I’m not the lone voice (just). Two others are equally ecstatic. I later discover they are co-owners Douglas Pryde and Jim Beaumont.
Auroras Encore is clear, the only threat a riderless horse. As they cross the line, I’m already jumping down flights of rickety wooden stairs to get back to the winner’s enclosure.
I spot the great Harvey, standing sentry-like in his trusty Flat cap, waiting to lead his horse into the winner’s enclosure. He shakes my hand. “Bloody good job,” he says. Meanwhile, the jockey looks bewildered by the cacophony of noise and post-race chaos. Take it in, Ryan.
I cheer as he and Auroras stride past me – this isn’t a day for impartiality – but my accreditation does not permit entry into the winner’s enclosure. Undeterred, I spot a steward open a side gate. I barge through, elbowing a gentleman out of the way. I briefly stop to look round. “Sorry,” I say sheepishly. S***, it’s Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson. When I meet him at the races the following month in the week of his retirement, I apologise profusely. “Don’t worry son,” he assures me. “I would have done the same. But harder.”
Then the chance to congratulate connections and scribble some notes. Typical Sue, she’s bemused by the fuss but pleased – no, relieved – that every horse came home unscathed. It is the same at the homecoming the next morning – the visiting media surprised by the snow as connections pose for photos with Auroras Encore before the horse, revelling in the attention, is led across the moor to Dick Hudsons, the local pub.
The trainer, meanwhile, is busy making pots of fresh tea (one of the many specialities at Craiglands Farm) while overseeing the stables where the horses always come first, even on days like this.
By now, Mania, a delight to interview with his natural charm, has made it to Hexham where a bad fall sees him airlifted to hospital.
The fear is it is a bad one, a very bad one, in a sport where a National win offers no immunity from the ever-present risks. Cue the hasty rewrite of pages of copy. From high elation to sickening concern for the story’s central character, and a job still to do, as deadlines approach.
Detained in hospital, Mania’s plight is still leading the national news on the Monday lunchtime when Margaret Thatcher’s death is announced and I switch instantly back to the day job – politics and comment.
What a surreal 48 hours. Yet lifelong friendships were made – and a card to treasure from Sir Peter O’Sullevan after reading the paper’s cuttings. “The stylish, wryly observed Richmond dispatches, coupled with the laid-back modesty of the hero of the hour, make an appealing double,” wrote the ‘voice of racing’ with such kindness. I will live with that.
But my lasting reflection is this. Red Rum helped to save the National; Auroras Encore and Ryan Mania, after making a full recovery, restored the race’s reputation – and they left this correspondent speechless.
Only a female winner can eclipse AP McCoy’s National?
WHAT have been my three ‘best of the rest’ races to cover?
1. 2010 Grand National. The year it finally came right for AP McCoy, his win on Don’t Push It was the one outcome I had written off because of the horse’s form. It will only be eclipsed by Tiger Roll winning for a third time next year – or a female rider landing the race.
2. 2012 Juddmonte International. I still shudder at how I nearly missed Frankel’s finest hour and the cancer-stricken Sir Henry Cecil being embraced by the York crowd because of the traffic on the A64. As the horse came into the winner’s enclosure, I found myself standing next to the genius trainer Aidian O’Brien as we both applauded. “The greatest horse,” he said. “And the greatest trainer.”
3. 2001 Haldon Gold Cup. This was the big race of the year in Exeter, where I was living and working. Best Mate had already won a novice chase here. Now he was confirming his potential. “He thinks he’s Arkle,” said trainer Henrietta Knight. Prophetic words as Best Mate did go on to win three successive Cheltenham Gold Cups – just like Arkle.
Honorary mentions also to any win by Kalahari King, Joes Edge, Lady Buttons, Mister McGoldrick, Thistlecrack, Definitly Red, Roaring Lion and Laurens. Great days with special horses and people.
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