6 April 2008

Grand National victory is always a glorious thing. Link it with redemption for both horse and rider and there is sweetness to it. By that criteria the success of Timmy Murphy and Comply Or Die under the happy sunshine of this Aintree afternoon was one of the sweetest of them all.

To the instant eye this was a case of the coolest of jockeys easing round on his classy blinkered partner to jump clear at the last and brand the pair of them into Aintree history. Beyond that first impression, the rider may have long put behind him the furies that saw him spend four soul-searing months behind bars in 2002, but the horse is only one season and two races down the line from being either an invalid or a weary looking parody of the potential champion he once was.

Murphy has always had it. When the horse’s career started, Comply Or Die seemed also to have the gifts that could take him to the very top. Murphy took his time but his association with Comply Or Die’s owner David Johnson and the magnificent 2004-05 season when he landed 142 winners and over £2 million in prize money has given his cool, flowing, match-winning style the platform that it needed.

Comply Or Die began well but by the time he was badly injured two seasons back it looked as if the early promise that had seen him win at the first time of asking and progress to finish second in championship class at Cheltenham might never be fulfilled.

It usually isn’t. Jump racing is a tough test and most horses, however well bred, raised, trained and ridden, don’t pass it. The Grand National is the most brutally demanding of all. When Johnson wrote what he would describe as “yet another” fat cheque to the great Tom Costello horse academy in Co Limerick the dream would be to have moments like yesterday. When Murphy rode his pony Bluebell flat out over the jumps back home in Co Kildare it was the Aintree flame that was kindling. How many millions to one is it that the two men and one horse should come together yesterday?

Of course, looking back it looks almost as obvious as that image of the black-goggled Murphy soaring easily up on the outside on the long run home from the Canal Turn. Comply Or Die may have finished 16th on his comeback at Cheltenham in October, but with blinkers fitted the David Pipe-trained gelding had run an excellent second to yesterday’s joint-favourite Cloudy Lane at Haydock and when he was moved up to four miles next time at Newcastle he had eight lengths to spare over his nearest pursuer. Comply Or Die was a horse on a roll. We just needed to know if he would take to Aintree.

“I knew it was good by the time he jumped the third,” said Murphy. “He had perhaps been a bit bold over the first two but that big ditch made him think. After that he jumped fantastically all the way. I always planned not to get there too soon but once we got to the elbow I thought it was time to finish it.”

How wonderful the voice of victory sounds. “It’s everyone’s dream to win the National,” he added, “and the punters aren’t as happy as I am. I built a little National fence at home as a child which I fell from more than I have ever fallen here.” Murphy has deserved his moment; a deadly stalking presence as Bewleys Berry and Snowy Morning led the principals back towards the last two fences and that so long and dramatic run-in during which he was cool enough to look over his shoulder at the closing King Johns Castle and Paul Carberry before finally driving for home along the rail. But once again Aintree was not so kind to others.

Most crucially to the owner- trainer-jockey trio of J P McManus, Jonjo O’Neill and A P McCoy. ‘J P’ may have ousted Johnson from top place in the owners table but yesterday’s four losers took the list to 28 since he first had a horse take up the Grand National challenge in 1982. David Pipe has now followed his father to Grand National glory in only his second season as a trainer but O’Neill’s training experience has been nearly as bad as his riding record when he never even completed the course despite being a great champion in other arenas. And as for McCoy and Aintree? Well, we hardly dare mention it.

But I guess we have to. Going to Becher’s Brook second time round his mount Butler’s Cabin was moving up to the front in a move that made a mockery of some of our doubts as to the wisdom of choosing him in front of the other leading McManus fancy King Johns Castle. Butler’s Cabin swept up to the fence and appeared to take it well but on landing the drop caught him just as it has caught so many ever since Captain Becher turned over during that first Grand National in 1839.

McCoy will be empty this morning but he is too good a man as well as a jockey not to look forward rather than back. Sadly the injured and destroyed Mckelvey will not be doing that and it has to be possible that, at 37, the great career of Mick Fitzgerald may be near closure after being taken to hospital following L’ami’s fall at the second. Fitzgerald will always be able to tell McCoy that he won a Grand National (on Rough Quest in 1996) and got himself into any all-time set of sporting quotations by proclaiming: “It’s better than sex.”

Yesterday’s principals stayed clear of personal details but their smiles said a lot. As for Comply Or Die, the care that has nursed him to this peak is never likely to see him end his days like Lottery, winner of that first Captain Becher Grand National. No, I don’t think retirement is likely to be pulling a cart in Neasden. More likely, more glory, next year. That, too, would be sweet.

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