BY JAMES HARRISON The Grand National has been something of a preserve for horses heading towards the veteran stage of their careers in recent years. The last three winners of the Aintree showpiece – Neptune Collonges, Auroras Encore and Pineau De Re – have all been aged 11. And the two winners before that were the 10-year-olds, Don’t Push It and Ballabriggs.
To celebrate the achievements of the elder statesmen who survived Becher’s, the Canal Turn, The Chair and made past the Elbow up the run-in, here are the five most recent 12-year-olds to have won the National.
An Aintree regular, Amberleigh House gave arguably the Grand National’s most famous trainer – Ginger McCain – his fourth win in the race in 2004. A good 10 lengths adrift at the final fence, Amberleigh House took advantage of Hedgehunter’s fall at the last to overhaul Clan Royal on the run-in and provide McCain with a fairytale win. Amberleigh House ran five times in the National and finished third to Monty’s Pass the year before his victory. He was brought down in 2001, finished 10th in 2005 and was then pulled up in 2006 when running as a 14-year-old.
There always seems to be a story behind the old timers’ Grand National wins. Royal Athlete was providing Jenny Pitman – the first woman to train a National winner – with her second success. Jockey Jason Titley was also riding in the race for the first time. Royal Athlete was also a horse who had endured two lengthy lay-offs in his career due to injury. Throw in the fact he was heavily fancied for the void 1993 National, which was ‘won’ by Pitman’s Esha Ness, and it is quite some story. Royal Athlete ran only once more after winning the National when he was pulled up in the Scottish equivalent at Ayr just a fortnight later.
It was a case of fourth time lucky for Little Polveir when he gave Jimmy Frost the biggest win of his career in 1989. Little Polveir had finished ninth in 1986 to West Tip, who was second in 1989. In 1987 and 1988, he had unseated his jockey on both occasions. He had also been sold by his previous owners just a few weeks before the race and hadn’t initially been bought with the National in mind. Little Polveir also provided his trainer – the late Toby Balding – with a second win in the race, 20 years after Highland Wedding’s victory.
Desperate conditions at Aintree in 1980 saw Ben Nevis produce a shock success when only four runners finished. Ben Nevis had been a star of the jumps scene in America, winning 12 successive races before being sent over to Britain to run in the 1979 National. His chance was ruined in that race and hopes weren’t high in 1980 as he had failed to win in 12 runs in Britain. But his American amateur rider Mr Charlie Fenwick cajoled Ben Nevis to an unlikely win against the odds in conditions nobody expected to suit. Ben Nevis was elected to the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame in the USA in 2009.
The most famous Grand National winner of them all won the race for the third time at the age of 12 in 1977. Red Rum, trained by McCain, had memorably caught the fading Crisp to win his first National in 1973 and followed up a year later. He finished runner-up to L’Escargot – another 12-year-old – in 1975 and then to Rag Trade in 1976. Sentiment, rather than form, sent Red Rum off at a fancied price for the 1977 National after he had shown only fleeting glimpses of his old sparkle that season. However, Aintree rekindled the spark and he came home 25 lengths clear of Churchtown Boy to raise the roof and cement his legendary National status.