3 April 2005

Don’t let anyone tell you that the Grand National isn’t what it used to be. I rode in the race 40 years ago. The first three, Jay Trump, Freddie and Mr Jones all had impossibly improbable stories. But if, as is here handsomely predicted, next Saturday’s result reads, Forest Gunner, Hedgehunter and Joly Bey, the tales will be just as strong.

The huge field (only 40 nowadays, there were 47 in 1965), the unique fences and the extreme distance mean that adapting to the course is everything. Over the years the most unlikely mix of horses and people have clicked around Aintree and for me Carrie Ford and Forest Gunner are just as probable winners as the American Tommy Smith and the Maryland Hunt Cup winner Jay Trump.

Jay Trump was a Flat-race throw-out who had become the best timber horse in America, Forest Gunner is a little chesnut hat rack who happens to jump the National fences as if they are dandy brushes. Not many people believed in Smith, who would not risk himself on any other horse; plenty today doubt whether Carrie Ford has the credentials or even the gender to conquer the Aintree ordeal. As in 1965 they should take a closer look.

Smith used to keep his own counsel. I remember him as quite cool when I rode against him in a warm-up race at Worcester. But I also remember he looked pretty hard when he took his shirt off and, with his long- legged horseman’s style it was obvious he wouldn’t fall off. I haven’t seen Ford with her shirt off. But I spent a morning riding with her last month. And flimsy chicken she is not.

At 5ft 5in and 8st 12lb she may look something of an elfin-faced sprite but she has been in the saddle for 30 of her 32 years, race-riding for the past dozen. She may have retired after winning the Fox Hunters’ Chase on Forest Gunner over the National fences last April, but she has been eyeing up a return since he won at Haydock in February and there is good reason to believe husband Richard when he says she has never been fitter.

“Last year’s Fox Hunters’ was only 10 weeks after baby Hannah was born,” he said on Thursday. “This time she has had a long, clear run at it. She rides out three lots a day, runs and goes swimming. Forest Gunner is as fit as a flea but Carrie is not far short of him.” However, condition at Aintree is only part of the battle; the real reason for fancying the Ford flier is that horse and jockey know each other so well and, like Jay Trump, Forest Gunner has never fallen in his races.

Hedgehunter has. He fell in last year’s National. But that was in desperation stakes at the final fence. This time he has been prepared especially for the race. He is ridden by the 2000 hero Ruby Walsh, who is now just about the most complete talent jump racing has seen. He is trained by Willie Mullins, who is too good not to get a National on his scoreboard. And he is owned by the former Lancashire bricklayer Trevor Hemmings, who would almost trade the whole of his business empire to see his green and gold colours triumph at his beloved Aintree.

Hedgehunter is likely to be favourite just as Freddie was back in 1965. If it gets close on the run-in there are likely to be moments when Ford’s efforts pale a bit beside Walsh’s deep compulsive drive. Forty years ago Smith was in a muddle at the elbow as Pat McCarron punched Freddie at him. But Tommy put his hands down and Jay Trump ran home hard for him. Trust Ford to do the same.

Third place next week could go to millionaire’s son David Dunsdon, who at first glance sounds as unlikely an honours-taker as Chris Collins was when he brought Mr Jones through from a long way back to be third in 1965. Collins was heir and new dynamo to the Goya fortune and had bought Mr Jones to ride in the National. Dunsdon’s father spent a tidy £240,000 on Joly Bey 18 months ago and while the horse and his 22-year-old jockey have won twice in nine attempts together, they also crashed out over the Aintree fences last year and David has won only once (on Joly Bey at Sandown) in 14 competitive outings this season.

Forty years on it would be as easy to denigrate one amateur as the other — and equally wrong. Collins was about the most unlikely looking figure ever to make champion amateur. He was unathletic, about 8ft long, and his wasting routine before the National made him as pale as his white colours when he lined up next to me at the start. I was sympathetically appalled at the sight of him, but he went back to the area reserved for third place; I took a broken collarbone to Walton Hospital.

Dunsdon may be a rich kid but he is not a soft one. His mother and aunt, as Sarah and Althea Roger Smith, were show jumping internationals. He himself has ridden over the big fences at Hickstead and in his first year out of school he raced all over the Continent to win the European Amateur Riders’ championship. The reason for his lack of rides currently is that he has taken a first in each part of his business management degree course at Guildford University, to which he drove back at 4am after riding at Cheltenham.

That outing was turned to disaster when a tangle among fallers forced his saddle right round. But he and Joly Bey can be a formidable combination. Last year and earlier this, the horse’s breathing collapsed into a gurgle under strain. “Just before he fell at Aintree,” Dunsdon remembered on Friday evening, “he had his mouth open and was making a terrible noise. We had a new bit and a tongue tie at Sandown and he was brilliant. If I can switch him off early next week, I think we are in with a big shout.”

When we met at our local pub on Friday, he had come back from his weekly boxing session in Lambeth, part of an intensive fitness routine that includes running in this year’s London Marathon.

David Dunsdon is my neighbour and in some ways a better-looking mirror of my younger self. In 1965 my father, a big company director, had bought a horse for me, a 22-year-old student, to ride in the National. Forty years ago I didn’t have what it takes. This kid just could have.

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