Irish jockey Leighton Aspell bids for racing immortality this afternoon as he chases a third consecutive Grand National victory. But long before his Aintree successes catapulted him into the media spotlight Aspell’s talents had won him a devoted band of followers...
There where two horses that took John Fairbrother’s fancy at Bangor races last week. Well, actually, that’s not quite true. There were two horses being ridden by a jockey that has always taken John’s fancy. You see, says John, in Leighton Aspell you can trust.
“Weststreet at 7-2 and Mezendore 9-1 and he’s won on them both,” says John triumphantly. Ah, forty-five quid for a one pound double. It was ever thus. From the moment in the 1990s when he’d notice how there was this young, unsung jump jockey from Kildare who seemed to be kicking home more than a few long-priced winners on courses in the south of England, John always swore by Aspell.
“Me and my mates just couldn’t understand why he wasn’t getting any rides. This bloke was riding at places like Plumpton and Fontwell on virtual no-hopers and still winning so we followed him from then,” recalls John in a break between his duties as a caretaker at a block of flats in the Sussex seaside town of Worthing.
“A few of us would go to a local bar on a Friday evening and pick a horse for the following day. One thing; we’d always make sure Leighton Aspell was on it. And he was winning all the time!
“A few people found out what we were doing and said ‘well, can we join you?’ and we’d joke ‘no, you have to be part of the fan club.’ Of course, there wasn’t any fan club but my mate said ‘well, why don’t you start one?’ So, as a bit of fun, we did.” Thus, the Leighton Aspell Fan Club was born. Yes, a jockey with a fan club. The only one. A.P, Ruby, Frankie, eat your heart out….
And now it turns out John and his pals really were on to something. Because 15 years after setting up the LAFC and nine years after their hero left them crestfallen by retiring from the sport, the subject of their unfailing devotion, approaching his 40th birthday, is on the verge of fashioning the most unreal piece of racing history.
For at Aintree today, Aspell rides the favourite and defending champion Many Clouds in the Grand National and if he wins for the third year in succession, he will have achieved an unprecedented feat in the 177-year annals of the world’s most famous race.
A spokesman at William Hill reckoned that when Aspell picked up the spare ride on Pineau de Re in 2014, you would have been given odds of 10,000-1 at that point against him winning three straight Nationals.
Yet after piloting the Richard Newland-trained bay to victory — “Leighton looked as if he didn’t know what to do with himself, you’d have thought he’d just won a seller at Plumpton!” recalls Fairbrother — things got even more surreal when he steered a second straight 25-1 shot, Oliver Sherwood’s Many Clouds, past the winning post last April.
This time, he wasn’t so dumbfounded. “Whoooo!” his helmet cam caught him screaming in victory. Which, oddly enough, was the same noise emanating from the Last Resort bar on Worthing’s seafront at that moment as the fan club cheered home a bloke who has become their pal as well as their hero.
“I lost me voice. It was a godsend for me missus,” chuckles Yorkshireman Fairbrother, who went straight out after the race and put a few quid on Many Clouds at 20-1 to win today’s edition. It’s now 8-1 favourite and he cannot quite dare to believe that they might all again be attending post-race victory celebrations with Leighton at the White Horse Inn and then the local rugby club in his pretty Sussex home village of Pulborough.
Aspell can’t quite credit it all either. “You know, this has all been just something special, something hard to believe,” he tells me while on the road to see Many Clouds at Sherwood’s Lambourn stables. “It hasn’t changed me but it’s changed my life all right. It’s allowed me to get some better rides, more spares, given me more profile.” His enhanced reputation has helped not just with his day job but with the pre-training business he runs in Sussex, helping rebuild the fitness of injured racehorses in an equine pool he rents out.
As a husband and dad-of-three young daughters in a routinely dangerous and often financially precarious business for journeyman jockeys, he says: “It can be a real struggle for a lot of my colleagues these days. Financially, the National success has made all the difference to me.”
It’s a race that has shaped so many stages of his life. As a kid, his dad Patrick, who himself was a jockey, trainer and stud manager, would give Leighton a pound on National day to bet on the “race that stopped a nation” across the water, the race that captured his imagination as a teenager when he persuaded his parents to let him leave school early and try his luck as a jockey in England.
At 26, that early love affair was consummated when he rode the race for the first time and finished second on Supreme Glory to the Barry Geraghty-ridden Monty’s Pass.
Then, after he had decided to quit at 31 because he “just wasn’t getting much of a kick out of it any more” and took up an assistant’s job at trainer John Dunlop’s yard, it was watching the National on a miniature TV out in a field which made him realise how much he still missed the big-race buzz. After 18 months, he was back in the saddle.
During his retirement, he left a lost fan club. Three hundred-strong in membership by then and recipients of a regular newsletter, the cult of Leighton had already grown to the point that one member even named his greyhound after him. Baron Leighton, “the wonder dog”, won 24 races, woof, woof!
The self-styled ‘Leightonians’ had even gone as far as to sponsor four editions of the annual Leighton Aspell Fan Club Handicap Chase at Fontwell in which, rather anti-climactically, the great man’s best finish was second.
By that time, Fairbrother and his race-going mates had all become pals with Aspell. “To start with, I didn’t know anything about it until some of the lads started taking the mickey out of me in the weighing room,” recalls the jockey.
He’d been a bit bemused when told that a tipping competition on the At The Races TV show was featuring a group calling themselves the ‘Leighton Aspell Fan Club’ who were putting their shirts on a 50-1 shot, Homeleigh Mooncoin, that he was due to ride.
Naturally, Leighton delivered and they won the competition.
He got to enjoy his fans’ company. “Yes, met them all over the country. John gets to Fontwell, he’s a good fella, we could talk about racing all day. We’ve had some good fun with it,” smiles Aspell, who sounds chuffed yet simultaneously just a mite embarrassed by their devotion.
“When he suddenly packed in in 2007, we were completely surprised. I thought he was in his prime,” says Fairbrother. “That year, he’d come and had a drink with us all. A very modest lad, a lovely lad. You couldn’t meet anybody any better. Quiet but he likes a laugh. I’ve never heard anyone say a word against him.”
Which is why there had been such shock in racing circles when Aspell had been briefly arrested and had his licence taken away in 1997 after riding a horse that was discovered to have been doped.
There was rather less surprise when one of the sport’s good guys was completely exonerated, charges were dropped and his spotless reputation restored, even though the “laughable” episode evidently still induces a trace of anger in a man who fellow jockey Paddy Brennan described after last year’s National win as “a true gentleman”.
The genuine delight for Aspell in racing circles since his comeback has been marked by such extraordinary successes tells you much about how highly he is liked and regarded. Best of all, it has reminded people that, actually, he is not really a journeyman jockey, but one out of the top bracket.
Not that Fairbrother ever needed telling. “We’ve always thought he’s very underestimated. Still is,” he says. “There’s no better person for schooling a horse, he’s got great race pace judgement and if you look at his record you can count on the fingers of one hand how many falls he has in a season. That’s proof of how good he is really.”
Even though he is not one to sing his own praises, press Aspell on whether his name belongs with the best and he shrugs: “Well, all those top jockeys excel in different ways, the Ruby Walshes, (Richard) Johnsons. My forte? I’m physically strong on a horse and my race reading definitely improves with experience, being able to adapt and execute a plan as quickly as possible in a race.”
Give him the right horse and two Grand National and two Welsh Grand National victories tell you that the marathon chases for this marathon man — a keen runner, he’s clocked 3hrs 30mins for the distance — suit his tactical nous down to a tee.
“The achievers are usually those who are quiet, confident and experienced,” noted Sherwood after last year’s race. “And Leighton Aspell is all of that.” Now, in Many Clouds, he has maybe the horse of his lifetime after their unique 2015 Hennessy Gold Cup/National double.
They’re a formidable partnership, having won 10 of their 24 races and amassed nearly £850,000 in prize money over four years. You can get a feel for their special relationship when Aspell talks about meeting up with his “old friend” in Lambourn.
“I wouldn’t swop him for any other horse in the race, definitely not. It’s very possible that he’s still improving. He’s a big, tall, 17- hand horse who’s been performing to a good level all his life and every year we’ve definitely seen some improvement in him.
“But it did take quite a few years to build up a bond with him because there’s a very slight, spooky, flighty side to his nature and the difference between success and disaster in the early days was a very fine line.
“He’s always been a really good jumper but give him the wrong signal at the wrong time, approaching a jump, he’d take off from anywhere and it could have been game over. I don’t want to jinx this but I think we trust each other now.”
Many Clouds may be getting better as he aims to become the first horse since the incomparable Red Rum in 1974 to win back-to- back Nationals but could his rider be improving too, just a couple of months before turning 40, the age at which AP McCoy finally walked away last year?
“I don’t know about getting better but you do get wiser and, no, AP’s retirement hasn’t made me think of the same. He was phenomenal AP but must have retired a tired man; there’s a lot less mileage on my clock and, as long as the owners are happy to have me riding for them, I’d like to think I could carry on into my mid-40s.” Mid-40s?! This was news guaranteed to overjoy Fairbrother who, when I last talked to him, was busy updating the fan club website, his unending labour of love.
So, great news. This lovely, eccentric, faintly barmy and quite British bond between a reserved Irishman who few would recognise beyond a racecourse and his bunch of unlikely middle-aged devotees has a few more furlongs to run yet.
“He has won us a few bob,” chuckles Fairbrother. But it’s not about that. It’s about a good bloke who doesn’t let you down.”
And in the Last Resort today, some hoarse customers will drink to that.
Trebles all round, Leighton!
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