It wasn’t necessarily the story we were expecting beforehand but Grand National day always delivers, writes Tony Stafford. Sam Waley-Cohen obviously had his retirement speech ready on Thursday when, partnering Jett - the horse on which he led the 2021 Grand National field a merry dance until tying up half a mile from home - he and everyone else assumed he would make all the running in the Foxhunters’ Chase.
After his failure even to get to the front thanks to an uncooperative James King riding the 2021 winner of the race, Cousin Pascal, Jett went the way of most horses denied their customary lead – he gradually went back through the field before pulling up.
After being quizzed by Luke Harvey at the top of the steps going into the world’s highest weighing room, Sam went over his great career in a few moments before announcing to Luke’s shock, that Saturday would be his last ride.
Jett, formerly with Jim Dreaper (son of Tom, Arkle’s trainer) in Ireland but now playing the family game with Sam’s father Robert at the homestead farm in Warwickshire, had been backed down to a ridiculous price (5-2) considering the demands of any race around these obstacles.
But, of course, he had the Sam factor, six wins in 40 rides around the track I think he said in that great chat. The ability to find gaps where others run into traffic has always been his friend – helped by the fact that, for many of his races, especially in the Foxhunters’, he was meeting riders of a lesser ability.
Now within days of his 40th birthday, too busy in his business life – he runs a dental empire with 3,500 employees – to be anything but (according to dad) a 30-rides-a-year man, he is the potential champion jockey that might have challenged A P and Ruby if he had come from a different family.
Instead, he has been the true embodiment of the old Corinthian tradition and, in Thursday’s race, his nearest equivalent, David Maxwell, went close to winning it, his Cat Tiger just failing to see off the strong finish of the brilliant Gina Andrews on Latenightpass, last year’s runner-up in the race.
The difference? Maxwell uses his own money to buy the horses. Covid must have questioned him as to whether, given he was already in his 40’s, he should continue to shell out the training fees to Paul Nicholls and the rest. Then we saw his face – nothing like an A P or Ruby countenance after a near miss in a big race – beaming in an ecstasy that no other experience could match.
But where Maxwell looks more from the Chris Collins, Dick Saunders, John Thorne and dare I say it the late, lamented (by me anyway) Brod Munro-Wilson riding book, Sam could be another Aidan Coleman as watching his wins up the run-in at Aintree didn’t look too much different on Noble Yeats.
Yes. Finally I’ve got there. A horse bought by Robert Waley-Cohen, not out of the Emmet Mullins stable, but very much to stay with his already upwardly-mobile young trainer. Nephew to Willie, cousin of Danny, whose dad, Tony, of Dawn Run fame, has been such a help to my life.
Emmet Mullins has master-minded, with his pal Paul Byrne, not just the rise of Noble Yeats but many of the gambles such as that with The Shunter at the 2021 Cheltenham Festival that Mullins has delivered.
Byrne was approached to see whether Noble Yeats was available for sale back in February and as he says, “you have to keep turning them over when you can take a profit”. Asked whether he regretted missing out on the £500k winner’s prize, he simply said he was delighted for everyone concerned.
After the race you had to scratch your head. The winner, obviously by the great flat-race multiple Gold Cup scorer, Yeats, was a seven-year-old. I know my memory isn’t what it was – ask the Editor – but I couldn’t remember the last time it happened. Looking through the records, no wonder. The last one was in 1940, years before I was born.
In the last pre-War decade victory for that vintage was almost de rigueur, with Gregalach, Kellsboro Jack and Golden Miller – during his five-time winning spell in the Gold Cup – all great names of jumping, each winning as a seven-year-old. But Bogskar in the first Wartime National, was the last so to do, 82 years ago.
I sat on my son’s sofa to watch the race on Saturday and as soon as I noticed the brown and orange colours – the orange sleeves actually – inching forward I exclaimed: “The best rider over Aintree fences is going to win on his last ride!”
He came there and jumped ahead two out but then he was outjumped at the last by Mark Walsh on the 2021 runner-up, Any Second Now. Surely the top youthful Irish pro would be able to put away the near 40-year-old amateur? But there was no amateur to be seen as he re-rallied Noble Yeats for a memorable win. It cost him a £400 fine for excessive use of the whip and, as he said later, “I’m the first rider ever to be out of pocket for winning the race!” – I’m sure dad will pay the fine if nothing else from his half-million pay-day!
The problem for Waley-Cohen senior is where to find anyone with his son’s ability when he returns for a repeat in 2023. This was only a second win over fences for Noble Yeats, but surely once Ahoy Senor had seen off the best of the staying novices earlier in the week we should have taken notice. Had Noble Yeats not run Lucinda Russell’s top-class young horse close when they met at Wetherby in February?
It was Sam’s second ride on dad’s bright new hope - they had a nice spin round together at Cheltenham last month when after making a little ground out wide he gradually weakened. Quite a nice warm-up for horse and rider you might say.
There was no weakening on Saturday and another measure of the performance was the 20 lengths back to the third, Delta Work, a five-time Grade 1 winner who did best of the seven Gordon Elliott runners.
There was no Fairy Story 2 for Rachael Blackmore on the day the wonderful documentary of her life, broadcast astutely on the morning of her repeat attempt by ITV, answered many of the questions to her talent and toughness. An outgoing, confident girl from the outset, she has transformed into a captivating woman and exceptional rider.
The morning on ITV also offered a computerised prelude to the race. Minella Times, to the shock of the watching Bob Champion fell and, in the race itself, was brought down at Valentine’s, the ninth fence. Snow Leopardess, who won that computer event, never got to her desired place near the front of the huge field and was eventually pulled up.
Red Rum, of course, came out on top in the Champions’ race, just outbattling Arkle – 1970’s course form bettering 1960’s and probably all-time world best. Noble Yeats, with Tiger Roll out of the equation, has the best chance for decades to match Rummy’s record with time on his side.
After Cheltenham it took me at least a week to get over what I felt was the immense injustice done to Party Business in the boys’ race. Stopped dead twice he came from miles back to be fifth. Our each-way bet paid off at 25/1 with so many runners but when you are trying to win a naps table that was a blow and a half.
Ian Williams said afterwards he would probably find a nice novice race for him and aim at a big handicap next season. Williams and owner Mark Sheasby, boss of Eventmasters, decided to go again at the last minute and their decision paid a deserved dividend in Saturday’s opening three-miler.
In a forerunner of the big race, two horses came to the last obstacle in close contention, one in the McManus colours later to be denied on Any Second Now, and Party Business. I had reckoned that his troubles probably cost Party Business upwards of 15 lengths, but on Saturday the horse that confronted him had finished a place behind him there.
Ilikedwayurthinkin was now on only 1lb better terms but he ran Party Business a couple of lengths closer than at Prestbury Park. It was great for Sheasby, a client and friend of Williams’ for 20 years, and the thousand guests he had at the track for the big day.
Did I nap him again? Of course not, but Micky Hammond came good at Wolverhampton on Saturday night. Thirteen days left to scour the William Hill Radio Naps table to see whether their assorted experts can catch From The Stables, under whose banner I nominate my pick of the trainer’s reports each day. Given I can select only from our trainers’ horses, it speaks volumes of their skill and vitally, their openness, that FTS is again top of the pops, for the time being at least. 🤞