A tale of the wholly unexpected

Considering that he had just scuppered a sporting fairytale, it was warming to see just how genuinely chuffed the racing world was for Leighton Aspell, who had scripted his own tale of the wholly unexpected at the Grand National and appeared not quite able to take it all in.

A tale of the wholly unexpected

As the quiet, popular Dubliner, on Many Clouds, became the first jockey since Red Rum’s pilot Brian Fletcher in 1974 to ride back-to- back Grand National winners, even A.P McCoy, on whose emotional farewell the 168th edition of the race had been centred, instinctively recognised what an extraordinary feat he had just beheld.

“It’s an incredible achievement,” acknowledged McCoy, who had enjoyed an excellent spin on Jonjo O’Neill’s Shutthefrontdoor until Aspell, on his young gentle giant of a mount, shut the back door on any chance of the great Ulsterman bowing out in his 20th and last National appearance with a win for the ages.

The first thing McCoy did after finishing fifth was to trot across to congratulate the unassuming history-maker. Even runner-up Paddy Brennan, who had driven runner-up Saint Are to within a length and three-quarters of Many Clouds, was moved to observe: “It’s not nice to be second — but I was second to a true gentleman in Leighton Aspell.”

It was a tribute echoed loud around Aintree as, for the 12th time in 14 editions, an Irish jockey entered the winner’s enclosure.

Everyone recognised that here was one of the sport’s real good guys continuing to enjoy the rarest and most uplifting renaissance.

Twelve months after winning on Pineau De Re, Aspell could not help but recall that 18-month spell between July 2007 and April 2009 when, having lost his riding mojo and enthusiasm, he quit to take up a job in flat trainer John Dunlop’s yard.

“During that time, I remember watching the National in a field on a small TV.

“Then, of course, I realised I’d never win it once, let alone twice!” recalled the Sussex-based rider, who was back in more grounded action at Market Rasen on Sunday.

“I look on it now as a crazy thing to do but that break certainly gave me renewed enthusiasm and gratitude for the chances I’m getting now.”

It shows.

He is 38 but riding with a kind of youthful verve and confidence, allied to a distance runner’s grit — Aspell is a 3hr 30min marathon man — that is reflected also in this remarkable tough, eight-year-old stayer Many Clouds, who should be back next year to try to carry Aspell to a unique piece of sporting history. No man has ever ridden three National winners in successive years.

Lambourn trainer Oliver Sherwood had thought that this year’s race might have come a year too early for Many Clouds but following the disappointing run in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, he was persuaded by owner Trevor Hemmings to give the National a go.

“It’s all down to the owner. Just shows what I know about horses!” laughed Sherwood. Fortunately, Hemmings, the irrepressible flat-capped 79-year-old former owner of Pontins holiday camps and Blackpool Tower, knows a bit too, of course. You don’t become the first man in 102 years to own three different winners — Hedgehunter (2005), Ballabriggs (2011) and now Many Clouds — without recognising a champion stayer’s quality.

Hemmings just hopes his footballing instincts are as sharp. Preston North End’s owner spent most of his victory press conference fielding texts about his League One side’s top of the table clash with Bristol City.

“One-all. That’ll do,” he chuckled.

“I’ve put a lot of effort and money into Preston and I’m hoping it’ll be rewarded by promotion but you can’t say that until you get to the line — just like here at Aintree!”

In Many Clouds, a €6,000 purchase who’s now won £741,000 this season alone while achieving the unique Hennessy Gold Cup- National double, Hemmings might really have hit the jackpot, though.

Having carried more weight — 11st 9lb — to victory than any horse since the peerless Red Rum in 1974, could this conceivably turn out to be the best National horse since ‘Rummy’?

If so, Aspell, who’s already won on him nine times, cannot wait to be part of the adventure.

“He’s been a good friend to me, this fellow,” he said, patting his old pal.

No-one could have been happier with the result than the Leighton Aspell Fan Club, a devoted bunch of followers on the English south coast who began their tongue-in-cheek worship of him back at the turn of the century much to Leighton’s bemusement.

The way things are going for the modest history maker, they’re going to be drowned with new applications for membership.

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