When the photo finish confirmed that Tiger Roll and Davy Russell had held on to win the Grand National by a head from the fast-finishing Pleasant Company, the crowd’s exultant cheer could have been heard over the other side of the Mersey in Birkenhead. As ever there was a grand storyline: the oldest jockey in the race, at 38, won on the smallest horse running for an owner (Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary) who had once sacked him while urging him to prove him wrong. Continuing that process, Russell will be this year’s champion jockey in Ireland. He was the leading rider at this year’s Cheltenham Festival and his own words afterwards made it utterly fitting that on the 14th attempt Davy should have made it on to the Grand National’s honours board.
As a child, he said, he was always happy to help his father cut the lawn at this time of year because he used to take all the grass cuttings and build himself a National fence. ‘I’ve won this race 1,000 times in my head, in my dreams as a child. I’m thinking about my kids knowing they can be part of this wonderful event. I’ve been coming for years and been satisfied leaving without winning because it is such a wonderful event.’ The best successes are those that go to those who truly appreciate them.
The only people who will be sad about this year’s magnificent National will surely be the more extreme animal-rights campaigners — some genuine idealists, others motivated by spite at other people’s pleasures. For years they have hoped that equine deaths and injuries in jump racing’s supreme test would provide them with the ammunition to fight first for the abolition of the National and then of racing altogether. Tabloids that have happily printed Grand National sweepstake kits for their readers soon scream ‘Carnage’ when horses fall fatally, as sadly they sometimes will. But thanks to changes made in 2013 to the cores of the fences, this was the sixth successive year in which every contestant returned safely to their stable. The spectacle remains the same; the risks, hopefully, have been reduced.
On the Flat, cruelty at this stage of the season comes in the form of crashing expectations as owners and trainers witness their aspiring stars and Classic hopes fail to take off from the runway. The second day of the Dubai Duty Free Trials Weekend at Newbury on Saturday saw a series of short-priced favourites overturned. The first race was typical: the Queen’s Humboldt Current, making his seasonal debut after a promising run at Yarmouth last October, was all the rage at 5–4 but could finish only fifth to a 50–1 shot, Brian Meehan’s Adjutant.
Roger Varian’s Defoe, who had flopped unaccountably in last year’s St Leger, proved himself to be back on track by winning what used to be the John Porter Stakes. But Gavota, 7–4 favourite for the old Fred Darling Stakes (now the Group Three Dubai Duty Free Stakes), finished only ninth of 11 behind Mick Channon’s Dan’s Dream. Expert Eye, a Goodwood star for Sir Michael Stoute in 2017 who failed in last autumn’s Dewhurst when odds-on, was another 7–4 favourite to go down in the old Greenham Stakes (now the Group Three Al Basti Equiworld Supporting Greatwood Greenham Stakes) when beaten by James Garfield.
Dan’s Dream’s seven-furlong victory delighted her trainer, who had sent in five winners the day before. However, it provided her owners with a dilemma. Said Mick: ‘She’s got the class to go back to six furlongs or up to a mile. It’s up to the owners where we go and I hope it’s to the Guineas.’ Since Dan’s Dream would require supplementing, that would require them stumping up £30,000 to run. But for their trainer’s sake I hope they will take the gamble. His unbeaten Fred Darling winner in 2001, Queen’s Logic, earned the label of best filly never to win a Classic. Cruelly, as the 5–2 favourite for the 1,000 Guineas she had to be withdrawn when found to be lame the day before the contest and never raced again. Mick has unfinished business with that race.
James Garfield was made a 16–1 shot for the 2,000 Guineas following his victory over Expert Eye and offers the hope of real excitement for his third-season trainer George Scott. Scott, who counts himself lucky to have found a good horse so soon, is married to owner Bill Gredley’s daughter and he is hopeful that their friend Frankie Dettori will ride James Garfield in the 2000. ‘Frankie lived next door to the Gredleys for ten years and he owes them one for terrorising them all that time…’ Scott paid tribute to Dettori’s calm: ‘He is so cool while I am buzzing’, while Frankie was admiring of James Garfield’s style: ‘When he gallops he gets his head down like a Jack Russell.’ You wouldn’t be barking to back the gutsy James Garfield for a place.