The Aintree Grand National is one of the world’s most recognisable horse races and one that has produced a long list of dramatic stories, thrilling finishes and, often, big-priced winners. With this year’s Grand National on April 8th creeping ever closer, we look back at some of the horses that have defied their apparent chances of glory in the Merseyside marathon to win the world’s greatest steeplechase whilst also attempting to uncover some contenders lurking in the 2017 Grand National field that might be ready to emulate them!
Winner: Amberleigh House
Trainer: Ginger McCain
Jockey: Graham Lee
Victory for Amberleigh House in 2004 stirred memories of the greatest ‘National horse’ of them all, Red Rum. Ginger McCain trained the magnificent three-time winner in mid-1970s and he struck again with Amberleigh House at the ripe old age of 73.
McCain’s interest in the Grand National had started to drop off somewhat but the legendary trainer got that old twinkle in his as Amberleigh House prepared to bid for success. Aged 12, he carried 10st 10lb to victory under Graham Lee, having looked out of contention at the final fence. Co-favourite Clan Royal, long-time leader Hedgehunter and Lord Atterbury jumped the last fence almost in unison with Amberleigh House ten-lengths in arrears. As they came past the elbow, Lee and Amberleigh House surged ahead and went on to win by three-lengths at odds of 16/1.
“He’s a professional. He’s the best thing that has happened to me for a long, long time,” a tearful McCain said after the race.
Amberleigh House remains the last Grand National winner to have run in the Grimthorpe Handicap Chase before going on to score at Aintree in the same season. The Brian Ellison-trained Definitly Red landed the Doncaster contest in early March and, with his trainer having confirmed Aintree as his next destination, is now 16/1 to win the 2017 Grand National.
In winning at Town Moor, Definitly Red delivered a resounding 14-length defeat to The Last Samuri, last year’s Grand National runner-up, advertising his credentials for the big day as he did.
Winner: Pineau De Re
Trainer: Dr Richard Newland
Jockey: Leighton Aspell
Pineau De Re’s 2014 success remarkably gave trainer Dr Richard Newland victory in the Aintree marathon at his very first attempt. Operating a small team of horses from his base near Worcester, Newland had just recently given up his surgery practice in order to focus all his efforts on racing and he was rewarded in spectacular style.
Aged 11 when he won, Pineau De Re carried 10st 6lb to victory and had previously fallen on his only Aintree outing in the previous December’s Becher Chase over the National fences. He proved his form when winning a veterans chase at Exeter before warming up for Aintree by finishing third in the Pertemps Final over hurdles at the Cheltenham Festival in March.
Aspell had brought Pineau De Re to the fore before jumping the final fence with a clear lead and he never looked likely to surrender up the daunting run-in, beating off Balthazar King by five-lengths.
“It’s a dream come true – a dream that we’ve had for about 30 years,” Newland declared post-race.
Whilst he still operates a relatively small team of horses from his yard at Claines, ‘the good doctor’ has developed a reputation for placing his charges exceptionally well and he will be hoping for some breaks in order to allow 50/1 shot Royale Knight make the field for Aintree this time around.
Winning jockey in 2014, Aspell was completing an amazing comeback having retired from race riding for two years in 2007. A year later, he would secure his place in the Aintree annals by riding Many Clouds to glory – more of which will follow.
Winner: Silver Birch
Trainer: Gordon Elliott
Jockey: Robbie Power
It was a fresh-faced Gordon Elliott that greeted 2007 Aintree hero Silver Birch back into the winner’s enclosure. The Co Meath handler has well and truly established himself in the Irish training ranks since and now stands on the verge of dethroning Willie Mullins as the champion trainer, but in 2007 Elliott was relatively unknown.
His training license was not yet a year old and Elliott had yet to saddle a single winner in Ireland before he revitalised Silver Birch to secure Grand National glory when repelling the late lunge of Mckelvey.
Silver Birch had gone more than two-years and eight races without success, falling in the previous year’s Grand National when trained by Paul Nicholls. Yet Elliott worked the oracle and Robbie Power’s mount held off the fast finishing Mckelvey under Tom O’Brien with Barry Geraghty and Slim Pickings close behind in third.
“We will have a party and enjoy it, then think about the next move,” the winner trainer vowed after Silver Birch had won.
For a young trainer it was a stunning success but Elliott was determined his Aintree win would be the springboard he needed to launch his career and he has been on rise ever since. Last season he saddled Don Cossack to win the Gold Cup at Cheltenham while he is now in battle with Mullins to be leading training over jumps in Ireland.
Much has been written on Elliott’s 2017 Grand National plans but, despite some of the Gigginstown hordes defecting, he still has the likes of 20/1 shot Ucello Conti and 33/1 chance Cause Of Causes in the hunt for glory on Merseyside in what may end up being another significant breakthrough season.
Winner: Mon Mome
Trainer: Venetia Williams
Jockey: Liam Treadwell
In proof that odds are no barrier to opportunity when it comes to the Grand National, 2009 winner Mon Mome was the biggest priced winner at Aintree since the infamous Foinavon win of 1967 and matched the biggest priced winners ever to win the race when he returned 100/1.
Jockey Liam Treadwell was having his first ride in the race and how his heart must have been beating when he came to the final fence neck and neck with 2008 winner Comply Or Die. The latter’s hopes of becoming the first back-to-back National winner since Red Rum were soon dashed as Mon Mome pulled away up the run in for a shock success.
Trainer Venetia Williams meanwhile, herself a former Grand National jockey, joined Jenny Pitman (Corbiere in 1983 and Royal Athlete in 1995) as the only women to train a Grand National winner. They are now part of a three-strong club after Sue Smith’s Auroras Encore won in 2013.
After Mon Mome’s win, Williams revealed that winning owner Vida Bingham had been tracking the wrong horse during the initial cavalry charge from the starting tapes.
“It was just unbelievable, the owner was watching the wrong horse for the first part of the race and she thought it was out the back,” she said. “I’m so proud of the horse.”
A year previously, Mon Mome had come more than 50-lengths behind Comply Or Die.
Come April 8th this year, Williams may have two contenders for National success with Tenor Nivernais available at 25/1 and Houblon Des Obeaux a 50/1 chance.
Treadwell partnered Tenor Nivernais to a 30-length success in a three-mile Listed contest at Ascot in February and, with 11st allotted for Aintree, he may prove popular in the betting.
Winner: Many Clouds
Trainer: Oliver Sherwood
Jockey: Leighton Aspell
Many Clouds triumphed in 2015 when the Grand National build-up was dominated by one man – AP McCoy. The 20-times champion jockey had announced his impending retirement and said he would call it a day on the spot if Shutthefrontdoor won at Aintree.
With three fences to jump, McCoy had his chance but it was Leighton Aspell and Many Clouds that stayed on strongest of all, beating off the challenge of Saint Are while Shutthefrontdoor eventually settled for fifth place.
For Many Clouds and his jockey, there were chunks of Grand National history. ‘Clouds’ the youngest winner of the National since Bindaree in 2002 and the heaviest, at 11st 9lb, since Red Rum in 1977.
Aspell meanwhile became the first jockey since Brian Fletcher on Red Rum in 1973 and 1974 to win back-to-back Nationals. Amazingly, at 38, he had achieved his feat eight years after deciding to retire from race riding – which he did for two years.
Jockey and horse formed a special bond through their careers and it was evident how much Aspell thought of Many Clouds, even then: “He is all heart. All season, he has had hard races. Win lose or draw, that’s the best ride I have had in the National,” he remarked.
For winning owner Trevor Hemmings it was a third Aintree success after the wins with Hedgehunter (2005) and Ballabriggs (2011).
There were big hopes that ‘Clouds’ would be back at Aintree in 2017 for another tilt before his sad but heroic passing in January.
Aspell was just the third jockey to win consecutive Nationals in the post-War era, after Bryan Marshall (Early Mist 1953 and Royal Tan 1954) and Red Rum’s partner Fletcher.
Last year, 19-year-old David Mullins won the big race and, having ridden him in the past, he could partner the likes of former Irish National winner Thunder And Roses at 25/1 come Aintree in April where he gets the chance to join an elite band of back-to-back winning riders.
Winner: Auroras Encore
Trainer: Sue Smith
Jockey: Ryan Mania
Perhaps the key to winning a Grand National for jockeys is having no fear? Like Liam Treadwell and David Mullins, Ryan Mania was having his first attempt at the Aintree race when he steered 66/1 chance Auroras Encore home for Sue Smith in 2013.
Auroras Encore came into the contest with precious little to show in the formbook but the dry spell that preceded the race meant he got the good ground his trainer longed for and he more than seized the moment. He travelled strongly into the race and joined the likes of Welsh National winner Teaforthree running to the final fence.
Mania kept his nerve and Auroras Encore answered his every call on the gallop to the winning post, with the 11-year-old holding off Cappa Bleu and Teaforthree in second and third places.
Afterwards the Scottish rider revealed he’d faced a tough choice in deciding to ride Auroras Encore.
“I had a choice of two but I thought I better stay loyal to him. He loved every second of it. He was just class,” said the jockey.
Smith took her place alongside Jenny Pitman and Venetia Williams as the only female trainers to win the Grand National.
While his form coming to Aintree was less than spectacular, Auroras Encore had finished in the previous season’s Scottish Grand National at Ayr. Form in any National is worth noting and, once the ground came good, the odds of 66/1 were perhaps too long when the tapes went up.
Last season’s Scottish National hero Vicente has been handed 10st 9lb for Aintree this time around and is available at 33/1 to double-up his tally and give champion trainer Paul Nicholls a second Aintree success after Neptune Collonges won the 2012 race in a desperately close finish.
Winner: Rule The World
Trainer: Mouse Morris
Jockey: David Mullins
What’s in a name? When in it comes to the Grand National, some punters are happy to keep things very simple and in 2016 those that backed Rule The World to rule at Aintree were left feeling very good in themselves as the 33/1 shot came home in front under rookie jockey David Mullins.
For trainer Mouse Morris it had been an emotionally charged period in his life following a family tragedy but racing found a way of giving him some comfort as he won the Irish National with Rogue Angel and a first career success at Aintree with Rule The World.
It was undoubtedly one of the most endearing success stories to come out of the famous Merseyside race in recent times. Rule The World had shown his aptitude for the test in April 2015, when he finished second to Thunder And Roses in the Irish National at Fairyhouse. He had been a hard horse to train and suffered numerous setbacks but his trainer always held the belief that he could be special and so it proved at Aintree.
Rule The World also cast aside some of the long-held theories about what it takes to find a Grand National winner. Two serious pelvic injuries meant he had his setbacks and victory at Aintree was his first over fences!
Reflecting on two Grand National victories in two weeks on either side of the Irish Sea, Morris remarked: “It’s just Disneyland, fairytale stuff” and who could argue.
Those wanting to go down the name only road for Aintree in 2017 might choose to look at a pair of Noel Meade-trained entries – Road To Riches is priced at 50/1 while Measureofmydreams is a 66/1 chance.