Amberleigh House  The name of Donald “Ginger” McCain will, of course, always be synonymous with that of the legendary Red Rum, whom he trained to win the Grand National in 1973, 1974 and 1977. However, it should not be forgotten that, in 2004, 27 years after Red Rum galloped imperiously into the record books, McCain trained his fourth National winner, Amberleigh House, and became just the third trainer, after George Dockeray and Fred Rimmell, to do so.

 

 

McCain bought Amberleigh House, specifically as a National horse, for £75,000 in November, 2000, after watching him win the Emo Oil Handicap Chase, over 2 miles 4 furlongs, at Punchestown for Co. Limerick trainer Michael Hourigan the previous May. Amberleigh House made his debut in the Grand National, at 150/1, in April, 2001, and officially “chased leaders until badly hampered and brought down 8th (Canal Turn)”. However, McCain recalled the incident rather more vividly, saying, “The first time he went to Aintree he was hit sideways on by Paddy’s Return at the Canal Turn so he was at the bottom of the pile-up.”

 

 

Amberleigh House was balloted out of the Grand National in 2002, but returned in 2003 to finish a highly creditable third, beaten 14 lengths, behind Monty’s Pass. Afterwards McCain reportedly told his son, Donald Jnr., “All you’ve got to do is improve him 7lb”. Officially, Amberleigh House had only improved by 3lb by the time the Grand National rolled around again, but met his old rival Monty’s Pass on 11lb better terms than the previous year.

 

 

In any event, having been patiently ridden by Graham Lee, Amberleigh was left with plenty to do with three fences to jump, but made relentless progress in the last half a mile, eventually overhauling the wandering leader, and favourite, Clan Royal a hundred yards from the winning post and staying on to win by 3 lengths.

 

 

Amberleigh House ran in the National again in 2005, and 2006, with distinction, but Graham Lee later paid tribute to the little horse, saying, “I rode him in four Grand Nationals and he was brilliant. Although he only measured very, very small, when you showed him an Aintree fence he grew a hand. He thrived on those fences and that was before they got modified. He was a very special and brave little horse.”

 

 

The last word, though, is reserved for Ginger McCain, who told live radio listeners, “It was f****** magic, cock.”

 

 

Neptune Collonges  In April, 2012, Paul Nicholls had won the National Hunt Trainers’ Championship for the last six years running but, after 52 attempts, had failed to win the highest profile race in the National Hunt calendar, the Grand National. However, on April 14 his luck changed, when Neptune Collonges, owned by John Hales and ridden by Daryl Jacob, snatched victory by the minimum margin in the final stride of the Aintree marathon.

 

 

Sent off at 33/1, despite having failed by just a neck to overhaul Giles Cross, who was receiving a stone, in the Betfred Grand National Trial on his previous start in February, Neptune Collonges made headway from mid-division heading out on the second circuit and, by the time the field reached the twenty-seventh fence, also known as “Booth”, was on the heels of the leaders. Only third jumping the last fence, he looked beaten when Sunyhillboy took the lead at the Elbow but, switched to the outside in the closing stages, bore down on his rival to win by a nose in a head-bobbing, pulsating finish. It was, in fact, the closest ever finish in the history of Grand National.

 

 

Seabass, ridden by Katie Walsh, finished third, a further 5 lengths away, having found no extra when headed at the Elbow. Nevertheless, in so doing, the gelding made Walsh, who was having her first ride in the race, the most successful female jockey in the history of the Grand National.

 

 

Neptune Collonges, for his part, became only the third grey, after The Lamb and Nicolaus Silver, to win the Aintree spectacular. His victory also secured yet another National Hunt Trainers’ Championship for Paul Nicholls, who said of him, “He got there at the right time and that’s what counts. This has been a race we haven’t had the best of luck in, but it’s great to win.” He also added, “If it hadn’t been for Denman or Kauto Star, then he’d have won a Gold Cup.”

 

 

John Hales announced the immediate retirement of the winner, as he had intimated before the race, saying simply, “He’ll never race again, that’s it.”

 

Devon Loch  Owned by Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, otherwise known as Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, trained by Peter Cazalet and ridden by Dick Francis, Devon Loch has the distinction of being arguably the unluckiest loser in the history of the Grand National. The world famous steeplechase is often won, or lost, in the last furlong or so, from the famous Elbow, halfway up the 494-yard run-in, to the winning post, but no-one could have predicted what happened in the closing stages of the 1956 renewal, which British Pathé News called “the most sensational Grand National Aintree has ever seen”.

 

The widely fancied Devon Loch was left in the lead by the fall of Armorial at the twenty-sixth fence and rejoining the racecourse proper had ESB, ridden by Dave Dick, for company. However, having safely negotiated all thirty obstacles and apparently beaten off the challenge of his nearest pursuer, Devon Loch set off up the run-in, with Dick Francis riding with just hands and heels.

 

A Royal victory looked assured until suddenly, inexplicably, 50 yards from the winning post, Devon Loch pricked his ears, half-jumped into the air and slithered to the ground in an awkward belly flop, with his forelegs out in front of him. Francis wasn’t unseated but, despite his best efforts, could only watch helplessly as ESB streaked past to win by 10 lengths. Devon Loch regained his footing, but almost collapsed again, so Francis dismounted.

 

Dick Francis, who died in 2010, aged 89, always maintained that Devon Loch didn’t rear up, or try to jump, but was simply overwhelmed by the wall of noise from the Aintree crowd. He once said, “I’ve looked at the newsreel time and time again and just as we were approaching the water jump, which he jumped on the first circuit, you see the horse prick his ears and his hindquarters just refused to work.”

 

 

Another popular theory was that Devon Loch caught sight of the water jump on his left and, in his distressed condition, instinctively took off. The newsreel to which Francis referred does appear to show his front feet leaving the ground at, or around, the take-off point for the water jump, but whether his collapse was caused by cramp, exhaustion, noise, or simply slipping on a muddy patch of ground, non-one will ever really know.

 

 

 

 

Aldaniti & Bob Champion  Every year the Grand National at Aintree features at least one story that just begs to be told, but perhaps none more so than that of Aldaniti and Bob Champion, whose heartwarming victory in 1981 captured the imagination of the nation and provided the inspiration for the 1983 feature film, “Champions”.

 

In July, 1979, at the age of just 32, Bob Champion was diagnosed with testicular cancer and given just a 35-40% chance of survival and, even then, only if he underwent a gruelling early form of chemotherapy. Begrudgingly, Champion accepted the treatment and, having been given the green light the following January, began a long, slow convalescence, spurred on by the promise of his boss, Josh Gifford, that his job as stable jockey would be waiting for him.

 

Aldaniti, for his part, was a talented, if injury-prone, individual, who broke down with a fractured hock at Sandown in November, 1979, and didn’t race for over a year. Champion later recalled, “He stood in a box for six months in plaster. That’s hard for a horse.” Aldaniti returned to training in January, 1981, and was reunited with Champion in the Whitbread Trial Handicap Chase at Ascot the following month. He won easily, despite starting outsider of the eights runners. The winning jockey said later, “He never came off the bridle. I thought – if he’s as good as that on the day, that’s good enough for the National, in my book.”

 

Allotted 10st 13lb for the Grand National, Aldaniti was backed into 10/1 second favourite and, although almost parting company with Champion at the first fence after standing off too far, jumped impeccably in the main. He made headway, going well, to join the leaders at the eleventh fence and made most of the running thereafter, eventually winning by 4 lengths from the fast-finishing Spartan Missile

 

Aldaniti suffered a heart attack, at the home of his owner in Kirtling, Sussex in 1997, at the age of 27. Champion reflected on their emotional victory, saying, “I will never forget the day we won the race. It was lovely sunny weather and I was lucky enough to be on the best horse in the race. He made a mistake at the first, but after that he jumped great and gave me an armchair ride. He was a good racehorse and I’ll miss him terribly.”