Robin Oakley

Perfect timing

Perfect timing

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For the Beach Boys it was California Girls who were sans pareil. For Chas and Dave it was the Girls of London Town. But this column is dedicated to the girls of Merseyside. On Grand National Day at Aintree, it was wet and windy. Umbrellas turned inside out, racecards disintegrated to sodden pulp, rain seeped down inside your collar. But everywhere you turned there they were in their wispy little bits of silk and lace, spray-tanned midriffs frequently on view, dressed nine out of ten of them for a summer evening’s dance floor and still loving every minute of it.

It was a pity that Carrie Ford, the 33-year-old mother who came out of retirement to ride Forest Gunner, trained by husband Richard, could not give them a first female victory in the race to reward their cheery stoicism. But she rode him beautifully to finish fifth behind the impressive winner Hedgehunter. If Forest Gunner hadn’t been running on empty from the Canal Turn second time round, they would have been closer.

Four times Grand National-winning trainer Ginger McCain, who had declared of Carrie that a ‘brood mare’ couldn’t win the National and threatened to bare his backside to the unkind elements if she did, was getting nervous on the second circuit that he might have to fulfil his promise. He had taken the precaution of presenting Carrie with a bunch of flowers before the race, even if it was only on loan before he visited the grave beside the winning post of Red Rum, the horse he trained to win three Nationals and finish second in two more.

I made my annual pilgrimage there, too, to see the bouquets placed there already, cards from his admirers declaring ‘Thinking of you on your special day’ and tubes of Polo mints. The National is the People’s Race. It inspires sentimentality and it always provides a story.

This year it was the story of a quest fulfilled. They haven’t found the Loch Ness Monster yet, or the lost city of Atlantis, but for 69-year-old Trevor Hemmings, a man who started his first building company with £12 and whose £800 million interests now include Blackpool Tower, it was the end of a long search for a National winner. It had been his dream since Specify, owned by Fred Pontin, for whom he was building holiday camps, won in 1971, and he used to watch Red Rum galloping on the Southport sands behind Ginger McCain’s garage.

But even rich men find it hard. Hedgehunter, trained in Ireland by Willie Mullins and one of 48 horses which Trevor Hemmings has with 11 trainers, was his 13th National runner. Only one previously had got round and two were killed in the attempt. Last year Hedgehunter fell at the last when up with the leaders; this time he cruised home 14 lengths clear.

The People’s Race and the Rich Man’s Dream. You have to spare a thought for champion jockey Tony McCoy, for trainer Jonjo O’Neill and for millionaire Irish owner J.P. McManus. J.P. also wants desperately to win the race. He had no fewer than six runners this year, one of them Clan Royal, who was second in 2004 after his jockey lost his whip five out and had steering problems after the last. This year Clan Royal was in the lead and going best of all when they were taken out by a loose horse at Becher’s second time around.

Bad enough for McCoy, who has yet to win the race in ten attempts. Bad enough for McManus, who has nearly 200 horses in training. But agony for Jonjo O’Neill whose yard was shut down for two months with a virus and who has been struggling to get his horses to the racecourse, let alone to win races. Jonjo was the first last year to congratulate Ginger McCain on his winner Amberleigh House. This year, asked about McCoy’s misfortune on Clan Royal, he grinned and said, ‘He fell off, didn’t he?’ He added, ‘That’s the National for you. No use kicking the cat. We live to fight another day.’ You don’t find a much better definition of grace in adversity. Clan Royal having been the National banker in my Ten to Follow, Mrs Oakley’s cat noted my tone and stayed upstairs just in case.

Other compliments are due. A bouquet for handicapper Phil Smith, who has been trying to encourage better-class horses into the four-and-a-half-mile race over 30 hefty spruce battlements by giving them less weight than they would carry over three miles round park courses. For all his efforts, we were writing every year that no horse had won with more than 11 stone on its back since Corbiere in 1983. Now the 11-stone hoodoo has been broken. Hedgehunter, his handicap mark shrewdly protected by Willie Mullins mostly running him over hurdles, carried 11st 1lb. And Royal Auclair, in second, was humping 11st 10lb.

Huge praise, too, has rightly been heaped on the prematurely grey head of jockey Ruby Walsh. We talk of horses being ‘Aintree types’. Time and again horses which have run well over the big Aintree fences in races like the National, the Becher Chase and the Topham Trophy come and do it again. But there are clearly Aintree jockeys, too. Ruby Walsh has now ridden in the race five times, won it twice and finished fourth twice. Only once has he failed to complete.

He had to give Hedgehunter time to re-gather himself after the horse had hit the fence before Becher’s, and he was left in front sooner than he would have wished. After the last-fence fall in 2004 of a seemingly tired horse, he needed to conserve Hedgehunter’s energy, and he clocked his race perfectly.