28 December 2003

Carl Llewellyn becomes the first Welsh-born jockey to win the coveted Chepstow marathon in 47 years

Fading light, slating rain, squelching turf at Chepstow; conditions to sap all but the most enthusiastic of chasers. Step forward Bindaree, hero of Aintree two seasons ago and now slugging giant favourite Sir Rembrandt out of it to add the Coral Welsh National to his laurels and make Carl Llewellyn the first Welsh-born winning rider since Dick Francis back in 1956.

Llewellyn had actually chosen another horse from the Nigel Twiston-Davies stable that glory day at Liverpool in April 2002. But with his own Grand National victories on Party Politics and Earth Summit back in 1992 and 1998, victory in this his native National at the veteran age of 38 was sweetness itself.

“He’s such an enthusiastic little horse,” said the jockey afterwards, “at home or in a race he always tries his best. Last season (when Bindaree was winnerless in seven outings although second in this race) he had some problems with his shoulders. But our vet has done wonders and today he was terrific. Coming here I didn’t think we would beat Sir Rembrandt but he really stuck it out at the end. I come from West Wales so it was a great feeling to win our National.”

Bindaree and his pilot were giving off such positive vibrations even as the 14 runners lined up for their exhausting two-lap, 22-fence journey. As others hung back to avoid getting involved in the opening rush downhill towards the stables, Llewellyn came in alongside lightweight Jeremy Spider and set off intent on making stamina count.

Thanks to the big television screen you could log what would have otherwise been indecipherable activity down the far side, but there was no substitute for the ear and eye as the field thudded past the post right in front of us with a whole circuit still to run. Heavy legs and sinking turf would ensure that only five would return.

At that stage it was the two favourites Sir Rembrandt and Hedgehunter who most took the eye, the former close behind the leaders, Irish-trained Hedgehunter hacking coolly round the rails right at the back as Ruby Walsh saved energy like a miser clutching a Santa sack of notes. Running down the long descent before swinging home towards the stands, the mighty Sir Rembrandt moved up to dominate with Akarus and Kings Mistral in attendance on gutsy Bindaree while Hedgehunter continued to improve. A lot of drama waited on the five-fence stretch to the finish.

At the first of them the normally foot perfect Sir Rembrandt took off a whole stride too soon and hit the fence with an impact that any horse less powerful or a jockey less long legged and prehensile as Andrew Thornton would have not survived.

Just as we were digesting the impact of this near disaster, the next fence, the last open ditch, tripped up both Akarus and Kings Mistral as completely as if someone had raised a hidden wire in front of them. Three fences to go and Hedgehunter now had his chance on the outside, Sir Rembrandt slugged back in the middle and away on the far rail Bindaree battled on with those bottomless Aintree winning resources.

Stamina is one of those qualities you only truly measure by the lack of it. Hedgehunter may shape as a horse who will gallop for ever but on the evidence of this run and his effort in the Hennessy, extreme distances are not for him. The penultimate fence crossed, and it was a straight head to head between Bindaree and Sir Rembrandt, the little chesnut and the massive bay, Bindaree with a 9lb weight concession and the rails on his side, Sir Rembrandt, his recent conqueror now marginally in front and being gathered for a last hurrah.

The crowning images of a great steeplechase are much less subtle than the flashing, winning moves on the Flat. There is a simple slugging honesty about what is in front of you. Tired horses facing one final jump to clinch a trophy, determined men trying to mix hot-headed courage with cool-minded calculation. Thornton needed a winging leap from Sir Rembrandt to shake clear from the terrier-like grip Bindaree had on his lead. He didn’t get it.

Sir Rembrandt did nothing wrong. His trainer Robert Alner was right to be well satisfied afterwards. But while he jumped well enough, it was the smaller horse on the rail who got away with an advantage he would never surrender. On the run-in Thornton grabbed the reins and drove his long legs into his partner’s sides to induce one last flourish from Sir Rembrandt. The big horse answered but that fifth last had whacked him. Nine extra £suddenly seemed like a hundredweight to carry.

On and on Sir Rembrandt drove but Bindaree kept stretching. Just half a length was in it at the line. Hedgehunter was a respectable third, Take The Stand a distant fourth and Jurancon II the only other one to finish. Twiston-Davies had talked of giving up training after Bindaree won the Grand National. Now he spoke of his Welsh roots and of how Bindaree would go back to Aintree again.

The little horse has conquered depressions more than just bad weather gloom.

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