Two months ago the popular owner took the decision to withdraw dual Grade 1 winner The Tullow Tank from the Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham due to the ongoing case against trainer Philip Fenton for alleged possession of anabolic steroids. A month later Connell saw the potentially brilliant Our Conor suffer a fatal fall in the Champion Hurdle. Connell didn’t have a horse in Saturday’s Crabbie’s Grand National an Aintree yet the race brought more woe as 25/1 shot Pineau De Re, a horse he had owned and Fenton had trained, won the world’s most famous steeplechase for trainer Dr Richard Newland and Dublin-born jockey Leighton Aspell.
Explaining the sequence of events that led him to persuading John Provan to buy the horse, Dr Newland, who intends to keep to his quota of training just 12 horses at a time, recalled: “The horse was entered in the May sales at Doncaster last year just after he’d won the Ulster National and I rang Barry Connell about him and he took the view the horse was a bit high in the handicap in Ireland and would struggle.
“Barry’s a good guy and I had this inkling that this horse had run his career best over three in a half miles and there could be more to come. It was a bit bizarre to be buying a 10-year-old but we took a chance. We certainly didn’t think he’d romp home in the National but he has and that’s racing.”
There was a sense of history repeated about Aspell’s success as for the second year in succession the National was won by a jockey who had previously quit riding. For Ryan Mania in 2013, read Leighton Aspell in 2014. Aspell announced his retirement from the saddle in July 2007 and spent 18 months working with Flat trainer John Dunlop before opting to give riding another crack.
“The summer time is normally quiet for me and I’d had a bit of a quiet spell results wise,” the 37-year-old recalled. “I’d had a bad month or two and I was a bit low and I should have probably taken the summer off to freshen up. But I took the view I wasn’t enjoying it anymore and looked elsewhere. I took a job off John Dunlop and although I enjoyed my time there I decided there was still some unfinished business.”
The road to Aintree glory remained bumpy though as Aspell only got the ride on Pineau De Re due to Sam Twiston-Davies, who rode the 11-year-old to finish third in the Pertemps Hurdle at Cheltenham, opting to saddle Tidal Bay here. The veteran responded by unseating Twiston-Davies at the eighth fence.
“I found out I had the ride about three weeks ago,” Aspell said. “After the Cheltenham injuries there was a bit of jockey-hopping. Sam had ridden this lad at Cheltenham but got on Tidal Bay.”
Aspell added: “I was second on my first National ride in 2003 on Supreme Glory for Pat Murphy and I had a few other rides since. I got around again once, then had a few falls and unseats but since 2003 this has been the first time I had a ride with a live chance.
“On the second circuit we had a lovely passage. We got close to a couple but that’s the National and from the Canal Turn I had a lovely bit of daylight and could plan my route. From two out I aimed for the middle of the last and that was my route home.
“You’re never certain of winning, even when you reach the Elbow, but I knew we’d have to tie up badly to be caught at that point. We didn’t have a lot left to be honest but you wouldn’t at the end of this sort of trip.”
As ever this was a spectacle that provided drama aplenty right from the start as Brendan Powell’s mount Battle Group’s reluctance to join the other runners led to a false start. The full consequences of that incident remain unknown as the 39 other riders refused to re-enter the stewards’ room for the conclusion of an inquiry into the start after the day’ final race.
Long Run jumped exuberantly to begin with but his race came to early halt after a shuddering fall at the ninth. “The further we went the less respect he gave the fences,” jockey Sam Waley-Cohen explained. “He was just enjoying himself a bit too much instead of backing off and respecting the fences a bit more.”
The former Gold Cup winner was one of 22 to fail to complete the course, with 10/1 joint-favourite Teaforthree among those who failed to finish, although all 40 horses and jockeys returned unscathed.
Across The Bay was the day’s hard luck story as he led going out onto the second circuit before being almost taken out by a loose horse, an incident that ended his hopes of victory. He plugged on to finish 14th. Jockey Henry Brooke was understandably distraught.
“It was absolutely devastating but he ran some race to get back into it and complete. He was on the tails of the leaders going right to the last but the effort to get back told. He jumped brilliantly the whole way. I’m gutted.”
At the business end of proceedings it seemed for a few moments that Balthazar King might finally end Richard Johnson’s long wait for National glory. He ultimately had to settle for second with AP McCoy finishing third on joint-favourite Double Seven.
“He gave me 200%,” Johnson said of Balthazar King. “I was struggling a long way out and he is a fantastic horse. I thought we had a good chance going to the Elbow and he gave his all.”
Reflecting on Double Seven’s effort, McCoy said: “He ran great. The ground was probably a little dead for him and it caught him out a little bit. He is a very gutsy little horse and has been very well prepared by Martin Brassil. He told me to be very positive and believe in the horse.
“I thought jumping the last ditch I had a chance of winning but the dead ground caught him out a bit from there. He is a hardy little horse with plenty of guts. Well done to Dr Newland and Leighton Aspell as they are both nice people.”
Nice sentiments and the sort Connell wouldn’t disagree with it. He wouldn’t be human though if he wasn’t pondering what might have been.