Returning National Heroes

We are now little more than a week away from one of the World’s most famous sporting events, the Grand National at Aintree.

It’s a race that has produced legends of the sport, both equine and human. A double-act that stand head and shoulders above the rest, are of course Ginger McCain and Red Rum. McCain was a no-nonsense Southport car-dealer, who took over training duties for a horse that was to become the greatest in Grand National history. Red Rum dominated the marathon event like no other. In a five-year stretch from 1973 until 1977, he was victorious three times and runner-up twice.

The horse became a national treasure, opening fairground rides at Blackpool, and even switching on the illuminations. An injury forced an end to his racing career prior to the 1978 renewal, and he enjoyed a long retirement before dying at the age of 30 in 1995. It was only right and proper that he should be buried near the winning post at Aintree, the perfect resting place for the National hero.

Returning successfully year after year, in a race that puts a horse to the test like no other, was a truly remarkable achievement. Many have multiple attempts at the Aintree showpiece, though few manage to land a blow on second and third appearances. Some, however, did manage to make their mark in the toughest race of them all, and it’s a period in the mid-2000s that I wish to take a closer look at in today’s piece.

Hedgehunter had all the physical attributes to become a terrific staying chaser, and so it proved. Carrying the famous silks of Trevor Hemmings, the classy gelding was trained by Willie Mullins. A fourth-place finish in the Hennessy at Newbury; third in the Welsh National and then winner of the Thyestes Chase at Gowran, appeared the perfect preparation for his assault at the Grand National of 2004.

Among the favourites for the race, the eight-year-old jumped and travelled like a dream throughout, and looked the likely winner turning for home. However, stamina quickly evaporated, and he crumpled on landing over the last, leaving Clan Royal and Amberleigh House to fight out the finish. The former almost took the wrong course, having to be dragged back on track nearing the elbow. The latter, trained by non-other than Ginger McCain, took his opportunity, getting up late for a famous victory.

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If Hedgehunter proved frail in 2004, it was certainly not the case a year later, when he returned with a devastating performance to capture the great race. This time he’d prepped with a win in the Bobbyjo Chase at Fairyhouse, and under a super-cool ride from Ruby Walsh, he sauntered to a stunning success, hitting the line 14 lengths clear. Clan Royal had looked a serious challenger, but was carried out by loose horses at Becher’s Brook when still five lengths clear. Hedgehunter took over in front, and looked the likely winner from then on. Ruby remained motionless until the elbow. It was a colossal performance.

He almost won the Gold Cup a year later, losing out to War Of Attrition at Cheltenham. Though lumbered with top-weight, he was still sent-off joint favourite at Aintree, as he attempted to win for the second year in a row. Once again, the JP McManus owned Clan Royal proved a major threat, as the pair jostled for the lead late-on. But heading to the elbow it was an Irish challenger, Numbersixvalverde, that proved the biggest threat. Hedgehunter was unable to withstand the late charge, and came off second best, though lost little in defeat. Clan Royal battled on bravely for third.

Hedgehunter’s Aintree story continued in 2007 and 2008, as he attempted to land the prize for the second time. Burdened with top-weight each time, he ran with great promise on both occasions before fading late-on, coming home ninth behind Silver Birch, and then thirteenth to Comply Or Die. That final effort came at the age of 12, and soon after the race connections took the sensible decision to retire the classy warrior.

Hedgehunter had amassed prize money of more than three quarters of a million pounds. His Grand National achievements are some way short of the mighty Red Rum, yet many would argue that his Aintree challenge came in a very different era. The history of the great race is littered with heroic efforts from horses that returned year on year. Next week’s renewal will prove no different, with The Last Samuri, looking to go one better than 12 months ago. Kim Bailey’s nine-year-old has the look of a Grand National regular, and another mighty challenge can be expected.

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