Tag Archive for: grand-national-festival

Henrietta Knight backing I Am Maximus for Gold Cup glory

It was Henrietta Knight who first identified I Am Maximus’ star quality and she is now backing the Randox Grand National hero to go on and win a Cheltenham Gold Cup.

The Gold Cup-winning trainer was in her role as racing manager to the late Michael Grech when she first laid eyes on I Am Maximus as a yearling and it was a clear case of love at first sight for Knight, who relished every moment of the Willie Mullins-trained eight-year-old’s Aintree triumph.

The 77-year-old now feels course winner I Am Maximus has all the capabilities to emulate her own Best Mate and capture the blue riband at the Cheltenham Festival.

Knight said: “I think he could win a Gold Cup. I’m not sure how Willie will cope with all his horses for the Gold Cup and which one he would consider the best, but he is a real stayer, Maximus, and he likes Cheltenham – he loves the hill.

I Am Maximus in action in the Grand National
I Am Maximus in action in the Grand National (Mike Egerton/PA)

“I really enjoyed watching the National and after he jumped the first two fences I said ‘he’s loving it, he’s got the hang of it and loves these fences’.

“We were just watching him creeping and creeping and he made that one mistake at The Chair, where he rather caught Paul (Townend, jockey) by surprise and he had to call a cab, but then Paul was very good as he didn’t rush him.

“He just let him get his confidence again and on he went on the second circuit, I thought it was fantastic to watch.”

I Am Maximus spent his first few summers with Knight at her West Lockinge Farm in Wantage and after the early stages of his racing career were overseen by Nicky Henderson, he switched to Mullins, who Knight credits with helping the burgeoning talent fulfil his destiny of winning Grand Nationals.

“I had the horse here a lot for two summers and parts of winter as well and he won a bumper and a novice hurdle for Nicky Henderson,” continued Knight.

Henrietta Knight has hailed Willie Mullins' handling of I Am Maximus
Henrietta Knight has hailed Willie Mullins’ handling of I Am Maximus (Bradley Collyer/PA)

“Mike wanted to move all his horses to Ireland and it was my idea to move him to Willie’s. I doubt anyone else would have won a National with him and he has trained him so well.”

She added: “I felt sorry for Jody McGarvey not riding him because he has done a good job on him this year, but that is how it goes in racing and you have to have your stable jockey on your top horse. Paul’s riding fantastic and I would want him on board.”

The son of Authorized is the latest champion off the Tom Costello production line that had been the source of Knight’s very own great, Best Mate.

The Costellos have been Knight’s go-to family when searching for high-quality new stock and I Am Maximus was an instant hit with not just Knight herself, but the horse’s original owner, who sadly died before his former charge reached his peak.

“I picked him out as a yearling and then I went back and bought him for Mike Grech as a three-year-old from the Costellos, from whom I bought Best Mate. He came from a fantastic place and all my best horses have come from them, not just Best Mate, but Calgary Bay, Racing Demon and Somersby as well.

Henrietta Knight with Best Mate who is her greatest purchase from Tom Costello
Henrietta Knight with Best Mate who is her greatest purchase from Tom Costello (David Davies/PA)

“They produce good horses and they bought him from France as a yearling. I always loved him.

“Mike adored the horse and he was named after his wife Maxine, it was his favourite horse. It was unfortunate he had to give up his racing interests and when that time came, Willie thought he was an ideal candidate for JP (McManus).”

Shifting to the left at his fences has always been a trademark of I Am Maximus’ chasing career, while he has always been regarded as a touch ‘quirky’ by those who have dealt with him on the racecourse.

However, Knight – a known master on the schooling grounds – has nothing but praise for his jumping ability and explains how he always had the hallmarks of an exceptional staying chaser in the making.

“Most of the best horses are a little quirky and he has a little bit of his own ideas,” she said.

“He’s very straightforward to train but he has his own ideas about jumping. He was always a very, very good jumper and a careful jumper, but he just likes to measure his jumps up by going left-handed.

“In the Olympics, you will see the high jumpers go off sideways to measure the jump and it is what I Am Maximus has always done. That’s his mark and how he likes to do it.”

She went on: “He was always destined to be a chaser and he was unbelievable when he was here as a youngster – we would jump him a lot. He doesn’t want to fall, he always wants to get it right and that means he sometimes takes some rather strange jumps that catch the jockeys by surprise.

“I have some fantastic pictures of Maximus jumping all kinds of poles and everything else here, he could showjump, he is that careful, and he has got the time to be careful over staying trips. He’s good at conserving his energy and he doesn’t waste any in a race.

“He’s a very good horse and he would have gone round again in the National!”

There were no fallers in this year’s Grand National, as 21 of the 32-strong field completed the marathon course.

I Am Maximus leads home a collection of high-class performers in the Grand National
I Am Maximus leads home a collection of high-class performers in the Grand National (David Davies for the Jockey Club/PA)

That is the highest number of finishers since 2005 and with the first four home all previous Grade One winners, Knight concedes the race is a far different proposition to the test her late husband Terry Biddlecombe would have encountered as a jockey, but a change that is necessary to adapt with the times.

“The first four home were all class horses and it just shows that cream comes to the top in races like that now,” explained Knight.

“It’s no longer a race where you will get a huge outsider from the bottom of the weights crop up, I don’t think. They skipped round a lot of the horses yesterday, they all looked fresh and everything looked good.

“The only thing is I think on the second circuit there is hardly anything to jump at as they’ve kicked all the top off – I think you could canter round on your pony and jump those. They are not what they were, but that is what the sport is now and people want to see a race without accidents.

“It’s just adapting to the times and it’s not like the brave riders of old who hunted round sitting on the back of their saddles on a long rein, with pot luck and huge fences. It’s more of a professional race now.”

All well with Corach Rambler after National disappointment

Lucinda Russell’s Corach Rambler is none the worse after his Randox Grand National title defence ended at the first fence.

The 10-year-old won the race for owners The Ramblers last season, prevailing by two and a quarter lengths to give the Kinross trainer her second success after One For Arthur in 2017.

This season Corach Rambler aimed to emulate great horses such as Red Rum and Tiger Roll in returning to Aintree to retain his title, but first he was a contender at the very top level in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

There he ran an admirable race when finishing third behind Galopin Des Champs, a run that made his handicap allocation for the Grand National look rather generous.

As such he was well-backed on return to Liverpool and started at 15-2 under Derek Fox having been the favourite for much of the ante-post phase.

Sadly his race ended only moments after it began, with Corach Rambler stumbling on landing after the first fence and unseating Fox.

He then ran loose to the next fence and fell when meeting the ground on the other side, though connections were spared the ordeal of seeing him run riderless for the rest of the race as was he corralled ahead of the third fence and caught.

Russell reported him to be unscathed following the experience and will now call it a day for the season and allow him to enjoy a summer break.

“He’s had a good sleep in his stable and is perfect,” she said.

“We’re very pleased and relieved to have him home in one piece and he’ll now go on a nice holiday and then we’ll decide what happens next.

“He just seemed to stumble and it’s one of the those things, but luck was on our side still as he’s absolutely fine.

“He went into one of the corrals, it’s very good how they work, he was caught quite quickly and that was a relief.”

Henderson just delighted to see old friends grab National glory

He could have been forgiven for thinking ‘what if’ when former pupil I Am Maximus sauntered his way to Randox Grand National glory – but Nicky Henderson was simply thrilled for all concerned and three days at Aintree he feels the sport can look back on with pride.

It still seems remarkable Henderson has not trained a National winner during what continues to be a hugely distinguished career, and it is perhaps indicative of his luck in the world’s most famous steeplechase that I Am Maximus was housed at his Lambourn base before switching to Willie Mullins in Ireland.

The future National hero won both a Cheltenham bumper and a Newbury novice hurdle while in the care of Henderson, who admits he was the one runner he was keeping a close eye on during Saturday’s main event.

I Am Maximus won a bumper at Cheltenham when trained by Nicky Henderson
I Am Maximus won a bumper at Cheltenham when trained by Nicky Henderson (Mike Egerton/PA)

“I’ve let one slip through the net,” quipped Henderson. “It’s ironic, you spend 45 years trying to win the Grand National and you finally get your mitts on one and we let it get away.

“He was here and spent his first two seasons here – he was a lovely horse – and he was the one horse I wanted to win yesterday.

“I suppose the only thing I might have done to contribute to his success was probably the way we minded him quite a bit when he was young, because he was big and backwards and raw.

“He was a lovely horse with a great temperament, but he wasn’t really ready for big battles in those days and just needed to be treated with respect – and I think that’s what we did.”

He was owned at the time by Michael Grech, who was to switch all his horses to Ireland in the summer of 2022, with I Am Maximus joining Mullins’ swelling Closutton ranks to embark on a novice chasing campaign which culminated in Irish Grand National success in April 2023.

Grech sold I Am Maximus to JP McManus before that Fairyhouse triumph and sadly did not get to see his former charge’s finest hour at Aintree, having died in September last year. But Henderson believes the horse’s big-race victory will be a lasting tribute to his good friend.

He continued: “I’m thrilled, he belongs to JP, who is one of my biggest supporters here and Willie is a great mate – I told him he needed to go get that horse. I’m genuinely thrilled for them.

“Sadly, he had to move on (from ourselves) and Michael Grech was lovely, we had some tremendous days together and it was great fun. The horses then had to go over to Ireland and sadly Michael died and it’s very sad because he was a lovely man.

“All his family were there yesterday, Maxine (his wife) and his children and it was a sad day for them, but he won in Mike’s memory.”

Nicky Henderson was in good form at Aintree
Nicky Henderson was in good form at Aintree (David Davies for the Jockey Club/PA)

Henderson did not have a runner in this year’s National, but was keen to heap praise on officials at Aintree for not just the successful alterations they made to the race itself, but for the three days in Liverpool overall.

The 73-year-old roared back to form himself on Merseyside after a testing Cheltenham Festival, with star performers Sir Gino and Jonbon both scooping Grade One honours.

He described the action on Merseyside as the “best three days racing you could wish to see anywhere”, with racing deserving of a massive pat on the back after a thrilling three days of action in the north west.

“I thought it was a fantastic race and it was a brilliant three days, you won’t see better racing anywhere,” said Henderson.

“Aintree need huge credit for it and after Cheltenham everyone was so down and out, it was all so gloomy and everything was wrong, so after all that, we need to say this was brilliant.

“I wasn’t going round Cheltenham doom and gloom because I couldn’t play, but I was back playing the game again this week which was good fun and the horses ran well throughout the week.

“It was a fabulous Grand National, with lots of horses getting round and everyone safe and sound, which is always a paramount – and I just thought it was the best three days racing you could wish to see anywhere and it wants to be celebrated and paraded and everyone saying well done to everyone.

“The sport did very well for three days and I know we are all under the cosh at Cheltenham and under pressure and maybe things get a bit heated or overtried, but up at Aintree everyone was there to have a good time and enjoy it and they did – and I thought it was first class all the way through.”

National glory has no chance of getting old for McManus

Leading owner JP McManus finished an incredible three-days at Aintree by watching I Am Maximus provide him with a thrilling third triumph in the Randox Grand National.

The famous green and gold silks of McManus were a frequent sight in the winner’s enclosure over the three-day meeting in Liverpool, with the Emmet Mullins-trained Its On The Line scoring over the Grand National fences in the Foxhunters on Thursday before a Grade One treble on Friday afternoon.

Inothewayurthinkin, Mystical Power and Jonbon were all successful on day two, but the best was still to come.

Although McManus had spoken of his liking for the chance of Limerick Lace – bred by his wife, Noreen – in the lead-up to the world’s most famous steeplechase, it was his first colours that were carried to victory by the Willie Mullins-trained favourite, I Am Maximus, who ran out the most impressive of winners in the hands of Paul Townend.

JP McManus has had a fine few days at Aintree
JP McManus has had a fine few days at Aintree (Mike Egerton/PA)

Flanked by his grandchildren, McManus was lifting the trophy for a third time as I Am Maximus joined the likes of Rhyme ‘n’ Reason, Bobbyjo and Numbersixvalverde to follow up victory in the Irish Grand National on Merseyside.

In the aftermath he was keen to stress his love for both the great race and Aintree, and told ITV: “I love everything about the race.

“I love Liverpool, the excitement of coming here, the build-up to the National, it’s just a very, very special place. When you win it’s a wonderful spectacle.

Paul Townend aboard I Am Maximus after winning the Randox Grand National
Paul Townend aboard I Am Maximus after winning the Randox Grand National (David Davies for the Jockey Club/PA)

“The Grand National, you are always looking forward to it and what you might have for the next one because it is such a special race.

“Willie planned the campaign with this horse a long time back and thankfully it worked out.”

McManus has already played a key part in National history having provided Sir Anthony McCoy with a long-awaited Aintree success when Don’t Push It struck in 2010, while that was topped in 2021 when Rachael Blackmore rode herself into the record books aboard Minella Times in the Irishman’s colours.

‘Game on’ – Mullins has sights firmly set on British trainers’ title

Willie Mullins said it was “game on” in his pursuit of a first British trainers’ championship as I Am Maximus provided him with a second Randox Grand National victory.

While it has taken 19 years for him to follow up his initial success with Hedgehunter, his domination of the National Hunt scene on both sides of the Irish Sea is now such that he is odds-on across the board to win a title in a country in which he does not even reside.

The prospect of emulating the legendary Vincent O’Brien – who did it in successive years in the 1950s – has loomed large ever since Mullins once again commanded the Cheltenham Festival, winning the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup in the process.

Mullins himself, though, played down the prospect, with one proviso – unless he won the £1 million National.

Willie Mullins, JP McManus and Paul Townend with their trophies
Willie Mullins, JP McManus and Paul Townend with their trophies (Nigel French/PA)

I Am Maximus was sent off the 7-1 favourite under Paul Townend, one of eight runners for the yard, and despite one or two hairy moments that are generally par for the course in a Grand National, he seldom looked like not winning.

With a lead of almost £40,000 over Dan Skelton, Paddy Power make Mullins the 8-15 favourite, and British racegoers certainly have not seen the last of the man from Closutton this season.

“I didn’t know we’d gone in front. You can expect to see us at Sandown, Ayr and wherever!” he said.

I Am Maximus pulled right away in the closing stages
I Am Maximus pulled right away in the closing stages (David Davies/PA)

“We’ll have to go for it now. We needed to have a really good National and we have. It’s game on now, isn’t it.

“I’d love to win the championship. Vincent O’Brien has done it in the 1950s and it is something different to do.

“As much as I’d like to win it my owners would like me to win it and so would my staff, so now we’re in this position you have to have a real go.

“JP McManus (owner of I Am Maximus) has been telling me for the past couple of years to have a real go, but I always think just mind yourself at home rather than spread yourself too thin and leave yourself wide open to have a bad season at home.

“Travelling horses takes it out of them, especially early in the season, which is why we don’t do it, but it’s panned out well today.”

Mullins himself is taken aback by the quantity of the quality in his yard. But even for him, winning the Champion Hurdle, Gold Cup and the National is something special.

“You might have the favourites for all those races, but you don’t for one minute think you are going to win all three,” he said.

“We can’t believe it at home. We’re gobsmacked looking at the talent we have in the yard. When I was a smaller trainer I’d be proud to have one of the barns that we have.

“I have an amazing team, I don’t think I saddled a runner at Cheltenham, I let them do it and it probably works better when I’m not involved.

“If someone had said we’d have 100 winners at the Festival you wouldn’t have thought it was possible, so we’re as amazed as anyone that it happened.”

Willie Mullins is looking to emulate Vincent O'Brien
Willie Mullins is looking to emulate Vincent O’Brien (PA)

So it could be a very different end to the season for Mullins, with Sandown and Ayr occupying his thoughts rather than Punchestown, but Townend may not be on many of them.

“We have a different programme nowadays to when Vincent won it. I find the English programme very hard to navigate, it seems to be a lot of handicaps and that is tough on horses,” Mullins said.

“I’ll let David Casey (assistant), who plans those things, get to work on it. He’ll be working overtime over the next two or three weeks!

“Paul has a title of his own to try to win so I’m not sure if he’ll be coming over, he’s got four winners to make up on Jack Kennedy.”

‘The National exactly as we want it’ – Jockey Club chief hails Aintree changes

“The National exactly as we want it” – that was the verdict of Jockey Club chief executive Nevin Truesdale after the first running of the Randox Grand National under new conditions.

A number of revisions were made to the famous four-and-a-quarter-mile chase this year, not least reducing the maximum field from 40 to 34 runners – although two late withdrawals meant 32 horses actually went to post for the earlier 4pm start.

The pre-race parade was altered to a canter in front of the stands, with a standing start implemented and the first fence moved closer to the off. The 11th fence was also reduced in height by two inches on the take-off side, with some ‘levelling off’ on the landing side to reduce the height of the drop.

Runners and riders during the Grand National
Runners and riders during the Grand National (David Davies/Jockey Club)

The changes resulted in 21 finishers and no official fallers in the Aintree showpiece, although last year’s winner Corach Rambler did come down at the second fence when running loose after unshipping his rider at the first obstacle.

Truesdale said: “We’re absolutely delighted, the changes have clearly had a very positive impact. I think it was probably the cleanest National I’ve ever seen.

“You’ve got to go back to 1992 to find more finishers, so we’re really pleased. I think the standing start seemed to work and I thought the jockeys were very sensible and it was a very well-ridden race, great credit to all involved.

“It was a really exciting finish, the National exactly as we want it.”

Clerk of the course Sulekha Varma echoed Truesdale’s thoughts, although she is keen to see what impact moving the first fence closer to the start had on the speed at which the field met the initial obstacle.

She said: “Everybody is coming up to me saying what a good race to watch it was, it was exciting and there were so many horses still in contention and we had a fabulous winner.

“There’ll always be time for review and analysis, it’s not right now, but we do that every year. As it stands we are very pleased so all credit to the jockeys and to everybody involved in the race, it’s been great.

“A few people have said they thought the standing start worked well which is great, I need to find out what speed they got to going to the first. What a shame for Corach that he went at the first, but there’s been some great performances and they all came back safe and sound.”

I Am Maximus led home 21 finishers in this year's Grand National
I Am Maximus led home 21 finishers in this year’s Grand National (Nigel French/Jockey Club)

Given the very wet winter and spring so far, there had been fears the going would be heavy on the National course. But after some drying weather, the race was eventually run on soft ground.

Varma added: “The ground hasn’t been bad, there were one or two doomsayers before we started. I bit my tongue and decided to wait to see how it rode, but overall I’m pleased.”

Critics of the changes felt the reduced field in particular would detract from the Aintree spectacle, but Rachael Blackmore, who won the race on Minella Times in 2021 and finished third this year on Minella Indo, did not feel the race lost any excitement.

She said: “I got a nice passage round and had plenty of space when I wanted it. It was still a fantastic race to ride in.”

Retired multiple champion jockey Sir Anthony McCoy said: “It was the most wonderful finish. I’ve never seen so many horses in with a chance of winning the Grand National so late in the race. What an incredible race – just a brilliant spectacle.”

Ruby Walsh, who won the Grand National twice, added: “If that doesn’t convince people that this is a wonderful sport then I don’t know what will.”

Maximus returns for happy Grand National punters

Bookmakers were put to the sword as I Am Maximus’ supreme Randox Grand National triumph meant the layers left Aintree licking their wounds.

It has been a chastening week for the layers in Liverpool, with a huge amount of winning favourites inflicting misery.

And that was compounded in the main event itself as Willie Mullins’ 7-1 market leader became the second consecutive winning favourite of the world’s most famous steeplechase after Corach Rambler’s success in 2023.

“It was a tough opening two days of the Aintree Festival for the bookies and the Grand National didn’t provide any respite on day three,” explained BoyleSports’ Brian O’Keeffe.

“I Am Maximus delivered a knockout blow in the big one for punters as he was one of our biggest liabilities. The placed horses weren’t kind to us either, but there’s always next year!”

It was Mullins’ second win in the Aintree showpiece and the sport’s leading trainer is no stranger to giving the bookies a bashing on the biggest stage, as I Am Maximus led home a 1-2-3-4 for Irish-trained horses.

“It was that man again Willie Mullins who so often is a thorn in our side,” said Sam Boswell from BetVictor.

“Whilst we had a significant spread of money in the race, we still ended up down thanks to the brilliant performance from his eight-year-old who had plenty of backers.

“Minella Indo, Delta Work and Kitty’s Light who all placed had plenty of each-way support too and it continued the theme of the jumps season which has been utter Irish domination in the big races.”

I Am Maximus’ victory puts Mullins in pole position to claim a first-ever UK trainers’ championship and he is now the general favourite to lift the trophy aloft at Sandown in two weeks time.

“The £1million Grand National was always likely to have a massive say in this season’s NH trainers’ title race, and of the three contenders, Willie Mullins went into the race with the strongest hand,” said Coral’s David Stevens, with the firm offering 4-5 for the master of Closutton to win the title.

“Victory for I Am Maximus has seen him claim favouritism for the championship for the first time, as the competition moves to next week’s big Ayr meeting and the £250,000 Coral Scottish National.

“The Grand National remains the biggest day in the betting calendar, and while I Am Maximus had plenty of supporters, he was one of many runners to prove popular on this unique occasion, and so we’ve no complaints about the result.”

Nicola McGeady of Ladbrokes added: “This year’s trainers’ title race is giving the Premier League race a run for its money. In what has turned into a very exciting three horse race, Willie Mullins’ Grand National victory has put him firmly in front of his rivals.”

Paul Binfield for Paddy Power said: “Around 20 seconds and Corach Rambler taking an unfortunate tumble at the first saved us over £5m.

“The winner was spotted by many punters, but despite that the bookies have had a result.”

So close, but Elliott has to give best to Mullins again

Gordon Elliott again had to give best to the “thorn in his side” that is Willie Mullins, with Delta Work finding only I Am Maximus too good for Delta Work in the Randox Grand National at Aintree.

The two powerhouse trainers have long matched strides at the top of Irish racing, with Elliott having to settle for second in the Irish trainers’ championship on multiple occasions as well as on some of the biggest of British stages, including when Gerri Colombe chased home Galopin Des Champs in this year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Elliott fielded seven in his bid for a fourth Grand National following Silver Birch (2007) and dual hero Tiger Roll (2018 and 2019), with particularly high hopes for Delta Work who was having a third crack at the race having finished third in 2022 and unseated his rider last year.

But as has been the story for much of the season, Mullins was a cut above the rest, with I Am Maximus coming home seven and a half lengths ahead of Delta Work, with fellow Elliott runner Galvin a further length back in fourth.

While disappointed to be denied, Elliott hailed the both the efforts of his runners and the “exceptional” winner.

He said: “It just didn’t happen for us. No one remembers second, I don’t anyway.

“Delta Work was awesome and Galvin is a warrior, I’m so proud of him and I’m so lucky with the horses I have.

“Delta Work was flying come here and I thought this was his year. He ran his race and just got beat by a better horse, that’s it.

“The winner is exceptional and Willie Mullins remains a thorn in my side.”

Jack Kennedy was aboard Delta Work and added: “He ran a cracker, delighted with him. He made a couple of mistakes but travelled well and ran a great race.”

The gelding did not return to the winner’s enclosure and Elliott explained: “Delta Work didn’t come back in, but he’s fine, he just has a cut on a hind leg.”

Minella Indo (centre) had to settle for third
Minella Indo (centre) had to settle for third (Bradley Collyer/PA)

It briefly looked as though Rachael Blackmore was going to add a second National to her historic first win aboard Minella Times three years ago when Minella Indo jumped the last in front, but she was overhauled on the run to the line, eventually coming home third aboard the 2021 Gold Cup winner.

She said: “It was a massive run, he’s some horse. He gave me a great ride around there and I felt for a split second we were going to do it, but then I blinked and I could see the green and gold (colours of owner JP McManus) flash by me in a shot.

“He was in against younger legs, but it was a brilliant run and congratulations to Paul Townend, JP and Willie.”

Minella Indo’s trainer Henry de Bromhead admitted he believed another famous success could be on the cards – but he was nevertheless thrilled in defeat, with future plans for the 11-year-old yet to be discussed.

Henry de Bromhead was delighted with the performances of his two runners
Henry de Bromhead was delighted with the performances of his two runners (Mike Egerton/PA)

De Bromhead said: “He’s a warrior, isn’t he? Just brilliant. I’m delighted with him.

“I thought we were going to win it there for a second, he travelled so well for Rachael, she was brilliant and they were both brilliant together.

“To get horses like him is incredible, we’ve had so much fun with him.

“We’ll see about next year, we’ll enjoy today and see – he obviously owes us nothing and all we want to do is look after him. But I tell you what, the way he jumped round there he looked like he loved every minute of it.”

De Bromhead also saddled Ain’t That A Shame to finish sixth for amateur rider and owner David Maxwell, who purchased the horse last month specifically to ride in the National.

He added: “David gave Ain’t That A Shame a super ride, he was brilliant on him the whole way. I’m delighted for him as he got such a thrill from it.”

Maxwell thoroughly enjoyed his National spin and said: “That was as much fun as you can have with your trousers on!

“Crossing the Melling Road I couldn’t believe I was still in touch, but I could also see so many going well. It wasn’t like there was just the three of us travelling well. I thought ‘bloody hell, I’m going to finish the Grand National’, then I thought ‘I’m going to finish somewhere near the frame’. I’ve never thought it would go like this. It was such a thrill.

“Damn right I’ll be back here next year. The horse is going to have to run in the race until he is 15!”

I Am Maximus (centre) on his way to Aintree success
I Am Maximus (centre) on his way to Aintree success (David Davies/Jockey Club)

Kitty’s Light fared best of the numerically limited British-trained challenge among the 32 starters, coming home a 10-and-quarter-length fifth for trainer Christian Williams and jockey Jack Tudor.

Williams said: “He travelled and jumped so well, I thought we were the winners all the way. I’m immensely proud of him and those were graded horses in front of him at the finish, including a Gold Cup winner.

“I’m unsure where he will go, because I really wanted him to win the National, but we will probably look at Sandown (for the bet365 Gold Cup).”

Last year’s National winner Corach Rambler got no further than the first fence this time, with Derek Fox unseated on landing after the Lucinda Russell-trained runner had cleared the obstacle.

The horse carried on running loose with the field and fell at the next fence but was reported to have returned unscathed.

Russell said: “It was obviously disappointing what happened, but I was more worried when I saw him come down at the second. Thankfully he’s fine, no problems and the owners are just delighted that he has come home safe and sound.”

Elliott and Kennedy cash in with Found A Fifty

Found A Fifty was the epitome of bravery in a pulsating finish to the My Pension Expert Maghull Novices’ Chase at Aintree.

Gordon Elliott’s Arkle runner-up had seen the form of that race franked by Cheltenham Festival third Il Etait Temps on Thursday and with Quilixios and Nickle Back leading the field along at a strong pace, the seven-year-old’s stamina was assured to come into play in the closing stages.

Both Jack Kennedy aboard Found A Fifty and Nigel Twiston-Davies’ Master Chewy edged their way into contention and it soon became evident they would fight out the finish of this race, as Quilixios backed out of things after two out.

There was little to separate the pair at the last and it seemed Master Chewy was going to keep on to glory when edging his head in front up the run-in. But Found A Fifty (11-8 favourite) was not for lying down and rallied gamely to get back up after a titanic tussle in the shadow of the post.

Elliott said: “We’ve had a great season, we’ve been hitting the crossbar all week and what’s not winning is running very well.

“I’m thrilled to see this horse win and I’m delighted for Noel and Valerie (Moran, owners). It’s a huge day and he was tough. He’s a good horse.”

I Am Maximus rules supreme in National victory

I Am Maximus was an emphatic winning favourite of the Randox Grand National, storming clear of his rivals to give the all-conquering Willie Mullins a second victory in the Aintree showpiece.

Successful with Hedgehunter 19 years ago, Mullins was responsible for eight of the 32 who headed to post in Liverpool, but I Am Maximus was well-touted to follow up last year’s success in the Irish Grand National.

An impressive tune-up in the Bobbyjo Chase saw punters latch onto the Grade One-winning eight-year-old and Paul Townend rode the 7-1 market leader with supreme confidence down the inner as I Am Maximus showed no sign of previous jumping frailties.

I Am Maximus on his way to victory
I Am Maximus on his way to victory (Mike Egerton/PA)

In a race with early drama when defending champion Corach Rambler unshipped Derek Fox at the very first fence, there were a plethora still in contention heading down to two out, where I Am Maximus was inching into contention.

However, the complexion of the race would change at the elbow where I Am Maximus scooted clear of the Rachael Blackmore-ridden Minella Indo and the staying-on Delta Work, who picked up second place in his third attempt at the famous race.

It was a first Grand National triumph for Townend, while owner JP McManus was striking at Aintree for the third time after Don’t Push It (2010) and Minella Times (2021).

Mullins said: “It was an excellent ride. I had said before the race that we didn’t know how good this horse was, today he showed that he’s better than he had been. I thought he still had a little bit from the handicapper after the Bobbyjo and he’s proved it today.

“Paul was excellent, he kidded him round the inside, he got chopped up a couple of times and probably didn’t jump as clean as he could, but he was looking for the gaps and when he eventually got it he was all right.

“I could see Paul’s body language and he was happy, so I was happy then. I don’t think I said anything until he got over the last and then I let go (and gave him a cheer).

“He’s a tremendous horse. He has his own way of doing things, he’s quirky and immature but he’s learning all the time. It’s extraordinary how we came to have him. Nicky Henderson had him before me, Michael Grech moved his horses to Ireland and Nicky said to me ‘make sure you get him’ and it was fine advice. Nicky could see the talent that he had and we just had to nurture it, so thanks to Nicky and also Henrietta Knight who organised all that.

“To win an Irish National and an English National is impressive.

Willie Mullins and Paul Townend with the National trophy
Willie Mullins and Paul Townend with the National trophy (Peter Byrne/PA)

“I think he could be a Gold Cup horse, but we don’t know how good he could be because he doesn’t do it at home. He’s quirky, but he has huge ability and until others get the better of him, we won’t know how good he is.”

First prize in the National is £500,000 – a sum which firmly puts Mullins in the driving seat for the British trainers’ title, with both Ladbrokes and Betfair making the Closutton handler an odds-on shot against Dan Skelton and Paul Nicholls.

Mullins added: “Now we’ve won the National we’ll have to give it a good go, we are there with a chance so we might see you all in Sandown, Perth, Ayr – where is there!

“I’m buzzing here now at the moment and it’s huge. As far as I know our team is back in full order with no injuries or anything and I’m happy that we have a full compliment of horses and riders coming back in.”

A jubilant Townend said: “At halfway he was a bit careful with his jumping, but we just built his confidence back up again and then going over the last two I had the four horses in front of me that I wanted in front of me. I was hoping when I pulled him out that he’d pick up and go and he did.

Paul Townend celebrates with owner JP McManus
Paul Townend celebrates with owner JP McManus (Mike Egerton/PA)

“This is a special place, you grew up building Grand National fences built out of whatever you could get your hands on. It’s a dream to win it. You build a course and your ponies probably know when it’s National time as you’d have the green fences out! It’s just a race that captures the imagination.

“The feeling passing the line is up there with the best I’ve had, but it’s a different feeling. Grade Ones are extra special and tactical and in the Irish National and English National you need a bit of luck, the feeling winning this is unique.

“It’s a special feeling when they start picking up passing the elbow. You honestly don’t hear any of the noise from the crowd, at that stage you’re in full drive and you’re not thinking of anything other than getting to the lollipop stick (winning post) before something passes you.”

National glory for Townend comes after a Cheltenham Festival that included the Gold Cup with Galopin Des Champs, and Townend added: “I have to pinch myself all the time to be honest. It’s fairytale stuff.”

Paying tribute to his jockey and the National as a whole, Mullins said: “Paul is riding so well at the moment and that comes with confidence, you see that in all sports, Paul just sees things other jockeys won’t.

“It’s another National for JP, which is great, and a second National for us. When you win it for the first time it’s amazing, I was on cloud nine for the whole year. It’s the first race you always see as a child, it’s Aintree, the atmosphere, it’s everything about it, the spectacle, it’s just a special race to win.”

Strong Leader lifts Liverpool Hurdle honours

Freshness was the order of the day as Strong Leader landed a telling blow in the JRL Group Liverpool Hurdle at Aintree.

Olly Murphy’s seven-year-old had hit the frame on his first attempt at three miles in January’s Cleeve Hurdle and his handler’s decision to skip the Stayers’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival was rewarded in Liverpool as the mount of Sean Bowen produced a brilliant display.

Towards the rear in the early stages as Aintree regular Flooring Porter was disputing the lead with the evergreen Dashel Drasher and King George hero Hewick, Bowen made a notable move aboard Strong Leader heading down the back side on the second circuit, soon joining those towards the head of proceedings.

Buddy One was another to take close order rounding the bend for home, with Jack Gilligan setting sail aboard the Irish raider. But Bowen was holding on to plenty of horse and after powering his way to the front jumping the last, he galloped on to score by four and a quarter lengths at odds of 8-1.

Buddy One bravely kept on for second, with Henry de Bromhead’s Hiddenvalley Lake third, but they were never a match for Strong Leader who gave his trainer just a second Grade One victory after Itchy Feet back in February 2020.

Strong Leader (left) on his way to winning the JRL Group Liverpool Hurdle
Strong Leader (left) on his way to winning the JRL Group Liverpool Hurdle (Bradley Collyer/PA)

Murphy said: “That meant an awful lot to me, I’m chuffed.

“He probably should have won the Cleeve Hurdle as he got underneath his hurdles for a mile and a half that day and I could have gone back for the Stayers’, but I’m adamant he doesn’t like Cheltenham – he doesn’t come up and down those hills well enough.

“We were ballsy enough to leave Cheltenham alone. I wanted to go there as much as anyone as I’ve never had a winner at the Festival, but we saved him for today on a flat track. He’s been good around here twice before and he just got into a rhythm today and jumped and travelled good.

“He missed the last badly, but apart from that he was good. Normally your heart is in your mouth for the last mile and a half with him, but it was just for the last two furlongs this time!

“He’s a very good horse on his day and I’m over the moon. I wear my heart on my sleeve and big winners is where you want to be.

“It’s hard work, you’re getting up early in the mornings, like everyone else who trains horses. If you don’t enjoy days like this you’re in the wrong profession.

“I love pressure because if you have pressure you’re doing well and I thrive off that, but you’ve got to deliver on the big stage. It’s taken me a while to have our second Grade One winner and I think this is the best day of my career so far.

“This lad is a homebred, the owners live 10 minutes down the road from me and they come up and rub his back themselves. He’s the most gorgeous horse you’ll ever set your eyes on and for him to be a good racehorse as well is even better.

“I wouldn’t be so sure he’ll go chasing. I might school him over fences and see, but I’d be quite happy to come back and win this race next year.

“Me and Sean are very close. He’s a friend of mine as well well as riding for me and for him to have a big winner like that is fantastic. I’m so lucky to have him as my stable jockey.”

Bowen was thrilled to hit the mark for Murphy.

He said: “It’s incredible, I can’t tell you how good it is for Olly. He’s been a while without a Grade One and he deserves all the success he gets.

“Strong Leader is a very good horse. He never puts it together to be honest, he can be a poor old jumper, but he jumped well on the whole today.

“You need these big winners to prove you can do it on the big day, so it’s massive.”

Buddy One finished fourth in the Stayers’ at Cheltenham and his trainer Paul Gilligan hailed another fine performance.

He said: “It was an absolutely fantastic run. He was given a peach of a ride by Jack (Gilligan). It is brilliant to be here, and boxing on the big stage as you are in the main arena here.

“Even though he is not in first place he is next best to it. We will look forward to going chasing with him next season, and please God that he improves for a fence.

“When he was in front you are thinking ‘don’t let anything go by you’, but hats off to Olly Murphy, and fair play to him, as he is a nice guy and well done to him, but it would have been nice if we won it.

“He is a fantastic horse. Is he going to win a Grade One over hurdles? Well he hasn’t done yet, but he is there on the premises the whole time.

“It is great for the guys that own him as they are three fantastic lads, and credit to my own family at home as they work hard.

“He is entered at Punchestown, but I would imagine that is it for the season.”

Henry de Bromhead felt Hiddenvalley Lake might have preferred more testing conditions.

He said: “He ran really well but Rachael felt a bit more give in the ground might have helped. He was also a bit keen through the race.

“It was his first run in a Grade One and is still young and will jump a fence.”

Brighterdaysahead indeed for Elliott-trained mare

Brighterdaysahead proved appropriately named when a bloodless winner of the Turners Mersey Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree.

Held in the highest regard by trainer Gordon Elliott, she headed into the Cheltenham Festival as one of the bankers of the week in the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle.

The Gigginstown House Stud-owned five-year-old suffered a shock defeat at Prestbury Park when second to Golden Ace, but back up in trip and facing some quality opposition, the five-year-old confirmed she is a mare of the highest quality.

Settled in midfield by Jack Kennedy, Brighterdaysahead was always in the perfect position and having travelled menacingly into contention rounding the turn for home, she cruised effortlessly to the lead heading down to the last.

A big smile from Jack Kennedy
A big smile from Jack Kennedy (PA)

Kennedy could simply sit and savour the moment as the 6-5 favourite sauntered to a facile seven-and-a-half length success over stablemate Staffordshire Knott, who was giving Gigginstown a one-two in the Grade One event.

Elliott said: “The horses have been running well week, but we’ve been hitting the crossbar. I said a lot about this mare leading up to Cheltenham and I was gutted coming out of it, but we’re overjoyed today.

“She’s very good, I was nervous before the race because looking at her I thought she looked a bit light across her kidneys, but she showed how special she is.

“We can go wherever we want with her. I’m not going to say the best mare I’ve had because Apple’s Jade was pretty special, but she’s good.

“In this game there are always disappointments, but I look at life totally different now, I just love training winners and I love horses. But to win today is unbelievable.

“I don’t think the trip was the reason she got beat at Cheltenham, I thought she’d win. Willie’s horse (Jade De Grugy) has already come out and won at Fairyhouse. I just think on the day Jack and Paul (Townend) were watching each other and the other horse (Golden Ace) came and did them both.

“She’s gorgeous to look at.”

In third, running a huge race at 50-1, was the Charlie Longsdon-trained Bugise Seagull.

“At 50-1 he wasn’t given a chance, but I knew he was five lengths better than his Sidney Banks run. I felt that would put him on a par with Handstands (the winner),” said Longsdon.

“He’s not streetwise enough to run in handicaps and he will be chucked in a field and have a good holiday.

“It’s been a bad season for us, the horses have been ill and then they came back on heavy ground and it’s just not easy to come back from being ill on heavy ground.

“This horse has kept the flag flying for the yard to be brutally honest. Hopefully this is the turn of things to come.”

Gwennie May Boy continues Skelton march at Aintree

Dan Skelton improved his already impressive record in handicaps at the major meetings when Gwennie May Boy continued his rapid improvement in the William Hill Handicap Hurdle at Aintree.

Having won the Grand Annual and Coral Cup at Cheltenham with Unexpected Party and Langer Dan respectively, Skelton plundered another valuable prize on Merseyside with Kateira on Friday.

Last year’s winner West Balboa appeared the stable’s first string in the Grand National day curtain-raiser, going off a well-backed 11-4 favourite under the trainer’s brother, Harry, but this time around had to make do with minor honours behind a stablemate on a steep upward trajectory.

Gwennie May Boy, who had won both of his first two races since moving to Skelton from Jonjo O’Neill’s yard, looked like he had just joined in at the second-last under Charlie Todd and the 9-2 shot scooted clear from the final obstacle to score by seven and a half lengths from Lord Snootie.

“I have to say, I genuinely thought West Balboa would win, especially after Kateira won yesterday as there was nothing separating them when they last ran together at Kempton,” said Skelton.

“I am astounded at the improvement in this horse (Gwennie May Boy). He’s only a six-year-old and walking round beforehand I thought he looked a bit light and might be over the top, but what do I know – it’s clearly how he likes to be.

“I’ve not had him all that long and I hadn’t even worked him out before I ran him at Bangor, I just ran him. He won so well there I thought there’s a £100,000 race at Uttoxeter so we better go for that and then there was this here, it was just obvious.

“He has taken me by surprise as he works terrible at home, but he saves it all for the track and he’s just got on a roll. He’s been a remarkable little horse.”

Cruz Control on his way to victory at Aintree
Cruz Control on his way to victory at Aintree (Bradley Collyer/PA)

Cruz Control (9-1) produced a tremendous front-running display in the William Hill Handicap Chase.

Trained by Tom Lacey, the seven-year-old was bidding to follow up victory at Newcastle last month and received a buccaneering ride from Stan Sheppard.

The 12-year-old Sam Brown, winner of this prize in 2022, briefly threatened to regain his title with a strong finishing effort, but Cruz Control had enough in reserve to keep him at bay by a length.

Lacey said: “He missed the ditch up the home straight the second time, but otherwise he jumped pretty economically. I stood where I stood to watch Thomas Patrick win the same race in 2018, funnily enough.

“He’s progressing. He’s unexposed over three miles and he hasn’t done much wrong all year. He’s seven, but he’s a huge horse and still a frame.

“Potentially he could be a National horse, but you’d want to be looking after his handicap mark to be doing that. We’ve always joked at home he’s a National horse, but he must have slow ground.”

Connor Brace aboard Horaces Pearl after winning the final race at Aintree
Connor Brace aboard Horaces Pearl after winning the final race at Aintree (Bradley Collyer/PA)

Fergal O’Brien saddled the first two home in the concluding Weatherbys nhstallions.co.uk Standard Open National Hunt Flat Race, with 14-1 shot Horaces Pearl outshining his better-fancied stablemate Tripoli Flyer.

The latter looked likely to emerge victorious after cruising to the front end under a motionless Paddy Brennan, but Connor Brace delivered the unbeaten Horaces Pearl with a well-timed challenge in the final furlong and he edged a length in front where it mattered.

O’Brien said: “It’s a great result, or a great result for one owner at least. They’re two very good owners and they’re two very nice horses.

“I thought on softer ground Horaces Pearl would go very well. His two Wincanton bumpers were good.

“I was actually screaming Paddy home and I said to my daughter Daisy ‘oh no we’ve been done, what beat us?’, and she said ‘your other one’!

“They’re two totally different horses. Horaces Pearl is six now whereas the other lad is five, so Horaces can probably step up in trip over hurdles whereas Tripoli will be fine over two miles.”

There has been some suggestion that Brennan may be closing in on retirement, but O’Brien added: “I said to Paddy coming back in ‘sorry about that, if you’d have won would that have been it’ and he said ‘definitely not’.

“He’ll keep going for as long as he wants to keep going.”

Arrests made after fighting breaks out at Aintree

Merseyside Police said eight men were arrested at Aintree on Friday, including four on suspicion of affray and two on suspicion of assault.

A fashionable crowd totalling 44,687 enjoyed an afternoon on what was Ladies Day, but the meeting also saw fighting break out.

Well-dressed racegoers flocked to the Liverpool course for the second day of the Randox Grand National Festival, with celebrities including Olympian Sam Quek among those enjoying the event.

But the day also saw the arrests of a group of men after reports of a fight. Merseyside Police said four men had been arrested on suspicion of affray and two men were held on suspicion of assault after an altercation outside the Princess Royal Stand at 2.25pm.

Another man was detained on suspicion of a drug offence after being searched near the main entrance to the racecourse, while an eighth man was arrested for being drunk and disorderly.

The force also said three drones had been seized after being flown in a restricted area.

Aintree officials passed on their condolences after Giovinco and Pikar suffered fatal injuries in their respective races.

A spokesperson said: “During our first race of the day, Giovinco fell at the last fence and was immediately attended to by our expert veterinary professionals. After assessment, sadly they concluded the necessary course of action for the horse’s welfare was to put him to sleep.

“Pikar sadly passed away following a fall at the second-last hurdle in the last race of the day, having also been attended to on course by our veterinary team. Our heartfelt condolences are with the connections of both horses.”

Last year, the National itself was delayed by about 15 minutes after activists gained access to the track, leading to more than 100 arrests.

Merseyside Police has warned it will deal “robustly” with any incidences of “anti-social behaviour, hate crime, disorder and other criminal activity” at the racecourse and punters have been subject to security checks, including bag searches.

About 80,000 people are expected to attend the course on Saturday.

Dancing City hits the right notes in Sefton success

Dancing City strutted his way to a cosy success in the Cavani Sartorial Menswear Sefton Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree.

A surprise Grade One winner at the Dublin Racing Festival in February, Willie Mullins’ seven-year-old was third when upped to three miles for the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.

Paul Townend’s mount was placed alongside fellow Joe and Marie Donnelly-owned runner Shanagh Bob as the duo tracked the steady pace set by Albert Bartlett runner-up The Jukebox Man and Pertemps second Kyntara.

The tempo was increased turning for home and as Kyntara began to retreat it was Dancing City who appeared in The Jukebox Man’s slipstream travelling menacingly.

Townend stalked his prey down to the final flight, with the rider simply having to keep the 4-1 winner up to his work in the closing stages as the gelding kept on for a five-and-a-half-length triumph, reversing Cheltenham form with The Jukebox Man who bravely held on for second.

Kyntara took a heavy fall at the last, but was thankfully able to walk away.

Mullins said: “It was a great ride from Paul because the game looked up crossing the bottom for about five or six strides and Paul even thought the game was up himself when he was off the bridle.

“But Paul just sat and sat and nursed him until they got over the last because it took some getting. They finished very tired and the second horse was especially tired, it was testing ground out there so it was a good performance.

“It’s taken a long time for him to show me he’s the horse we thought he was when we bought him. A few times we thought we should maybe ship him on, but he’s come right now and he’s going to make an exciting novice chaser. My father always used to say to me ‘patience’ which obviously at the time I didn’t really understand, but some horses just need time to come to themselves.

“He could have easily thrown in the towel today when he was off the bridle but he didn’t, and that’s the difference between the good ones and the bad ones and he looks another good one for Joe Donnelly.”

Ben Pauling was quick to pay tribute to the The Jukebox Man, who is owned by Harry Redknapp.

“He’s now run two fabulous races at both Cheltenham and Aintree, to finish second in both of them is not bad, albeit we all want to win,” he said.

“He was fairly pestered the whole way today. I thought Deutschy (Charlie Deutsch, rider of Kyntara) was softening us both up and Willie’s horse has just been able to sit in behind and come through and win.

“Hopefully our horse is a very nice horse for the future, he’s going to be very exciting over fences next season. We’ll drop back to two and a half and see, as he doesn’t need three.

“I think he might be a shade better over two and a half as he has got gears.”

Redknapp, who had earlier seen his Cheltenham Festival hero Shakem Up’Arry finish last of 17 in the Topham Chase over the Grand National fences, said of The Jukebox Man: “He jumped so well, I just thought the other horse was pestering him the whole way and probably didn’t let us get the breather in.

“Kielan (Woods) said he’s a fantastic horse and Ben said we could drop back to two and a half next season over fences, so we’ve got a lot to look forward to.”

Of Shakem Up’Arry, he added: “He jumped well and never missed a fence, but maybe the run at Cheltenham might just have took it out of him, that’s what Ben felt.

“It’s difficult to win at Cheltenham and come back and win here, I’m sure the records tell you that. He’s come back safe and sound and we’ll look forward to next year with him too.

“I’ve had a lovely day and to see The Jukebox Man run so well again, I’m delighted.

“We’ve got Bowtogreatness as well, we think there’s a big race in him in the future and we’re going to Punchestown with him.

“I love it, it’s my big passion and to go to Cheltenham and come here and have horses that can compete is great for me, it’s what I enjoy.”