It was the rather aptly named Lottery that claimed victory in the inaugural Aintree Grand National in 1839, a feat that jockeys and trainers alike have been trying to replicate since. Doing so has the power to define a jockey’s career and it is the grueling nature of the race that attracts the eyes of the world.
Dubliner, Leighton Aspell, is a member of an illustrious group of jockeys to have won the blue-ribbon event on two occasions. Following his maiden victory aboard Pineau de Re in 2014, he had to wait just twelve months for further success aboard the Oliver Sherwood trained Many Clouds, cementing his place as a Grand National legend.
Regrettably, a neck injury rules him out of this year’s renewal but there are few more knowledgeable on how best to navigate the Liverpool circuit.
Charging towards the first fence, jockeys will be vying for position and Aspell insists that while jockeys have positional preferences, ideals are hard to come by in a race of such magnitude.
He said: “Some prefer inside, middle or outside but if you have five or six who want to be in the same position, it is every man for themselves.
“I usually try to be one of the first down the middle before making my way across once we’ve passed the Canal Turn.”
some prefer inside, middle or outside but if you have five or six who want to be in the same position, it is every man for themselves
While travelling to the first Aspell noted “The horse may be a little excited by the whole build up but you want your horse to be on the money and meet the first on a perfect stride – not too long as there’s quiet at a drop at the back.”
The third obstacle, an open ditch, is perhaps the first major test of a horse’s jumping and is unlike anything they would have experienced on a schooling morning
“To jump that in cold blood would take some doing – It’s okay on race day when the blood is up but it’s a very big fence” he says.
Should a mount be struggling in the jumping steaks early on, Aspell suggests it is likely to be a case of it ‘being downhill from there’.
“It’s too tough a race for a horse’s jumping to improve.
“It’s very important to get the six fences under your belt and jumping well – the horse is up for it then.”
Should your National hopeful successfully negotiate the fourth and fifth obstacles they will then face up to the might of Bechers Brook, which signalled the end of the race for Sychronised and AP McCoy in 2012.
According to Aspell, the difficulty rests on the landing side, where a 5ft 6in brook makes for a steep landing. “Horses pitch on landing and when you land you are turning left, so, you want to approach it from right to left with the perfect view.”
Having survived Beechers, Foinavon can often offer a false sense of security for horses and Aspell suggests “It can pose problems as they have pitched on landing at Bechers and often horses have fallen around them.”
Such is the populated nature of the National field, Aspell admits that jockeys are often solely reliant on their willing partner to get them to the other side of an obstacle.
“It can be difficult to see the fence and you are very reliant on your horse.
“Hopefully, you are riding a horse with plenty of experience jumping park fences.
“You can help to an extent but the horse is doing the jumping and you’re there to put them in the best tactical position” says the two-time Grand National winner.
keeping out of trouble before making a plan on the second circuit
Following Foinavon it’s on The Canal Turn, at which most of the field will attempt to cut the corner. From there just eight obstacles remain on the opening circuit and the 41-year-old states it’s a case of “keeping out of trouble before making a plan on the second circuit.”
Of the remainder, The Chair is likely to pose the greatest jumping test. The second last, it was the point at which Aspell and Pineau de Re hit the front second time around in 2014.
At that point a jockey’s fitness really comes into play and he says “Jockeys have a massive part to play in the endurance side of it because you’ve got to be mentally and physically fit.
“It’s the longest race of the year and there is a lot going through your head so you have got to be very strong.
“Your horse is going to be tired and you have to be strong enough to help the horse in the latter part of the race.”
In victory though, “It’s all worth it”, he admits.
His victory on Many Clouds just twelve months later brought up a hat-trick of victories in the race for owner Trevor Hemmings – the closing stages of which Aspell is happy to recount:
“I got to the front after The Druids Nephew fell but didn’t press on, I just waited for someone to come to me and push me along.
“But once you get over the last you have to go for it, try to get to the elbow first and just hope that your horse can see it out.
“I had a great relationship with Many Clouds and it was special for that reason” he concluded.
By Gerard Mulvihill