10 April 2005

They wrote their name in history. Not Carrie Ford and Forest Gunner, although she rode a peach of a race to be fifth, but Ruby Walsh, Willie Mullins, Trevor Hemmings and a horse called Hedgehunter.

There is always one Grand National story that comes through the fire to be soldered into the fabric of the greatest race of them all. This time the Hedgehunter tale is as sweet as any National dream. But, as so often, it only came at the expense of someone else’s nightmare. At the finish Walsh drove Hedgehunter a resounding 14 lengths away from Royal Auclair and 19 other finishers. But who knows what might have happened if Tony McCoy and last year’s second, Clan Royal, had not been wiped out at Becher’s Brook second time round?

The race had settled into a steady rhythm even if Clan Royal, revved up by a broken breast girth flapping, was almost pulling McCoy’s arms out up in front. But at The Chair fence Take The Stand dislodged Leighton Aspell before joining the riderless Merchants Friend up ahead. Clan Royal was springheeled at the fences but now McCoy had the two worst words at Aintree – loose horses.

The run down to Becher’s has a rail either side and a front-running loose horse cannot run out. McCoy went first one side then the other of the straying Take The Stand but just yards from the fence Merchants Friend decided to swerve left; Take The Stand followed him, forcing Clan Royal into such a violent shift to port that McCoy was tossed off to starboard and into the (mercifully plastic) rails.

Hedgehunter swept through up the inside with an open, but earlier than wanted, open road to victory. As the field crossed the Melling Road with just two fences left the posse of pursuers was 11 horses strong. Hedgehunter, who last year had fallen exhausted at the final fence when still in contention, was still moving easily but any number of others were threatening; Royal Auclair seemed to be cruising, so too Heros Collonges, Simply Gifted, Innox and Joly Bey. Carrie Ford and Forest Gunner were still in there fighting and Timmy Murphy was at his stealthiest on It Takes Time.

But 28 fences had been jumped and four miles covered. Exhaustion began to claw them back. Joly Bey, Polar Red, then Heros Collonges and Innox weakened and at the last Hedgehunter had a couple of lengths to spare over Royal Auclair. He also had breath to spare — and a master on his back. Ruby Walsh won the National first time out on Papillon for his father Ted back in 2000. In six rides he has now completed six times, the statistics confirming what the eye has long told – that his deep low style round a horse has made him a horseman/ jockey only ever matched by Richard Dunwoody.

Many, many times Aintree’s long dog-legged run-in has ground down the leader. Hedgehunter was never going to weaken once he reached the final rails with a straight run to the line. As they drove past the winning post Walsh gave a mighty upper cut through the air. At only 25 he may be the youngest grey head in the business – but he has now sipped a second taste of National glory.

Up until yesterday Hedgehunter’s trainer and owner had Aintree statistics almost the absolute reverse of his rider’s. Willie Mullins had saddled five runners all of whom had failed to complete, while Trevor Hemmings had only had two finishers from a full dozen starters. Now Hemmings stood waiting for his hero to come back.

“It’s an incredible feeling,” he said his usual flat cap and old coat belying his huge business empire. “I have been trying for so many years I thought that it might not happen. But this was the plan all season. You have to hand it to the trainer.”

Mullins arrived as neat as any maestro might be. He had kept Hedgehunter to hurdles all season until a winning return to fences in February but saw all his plans threatened when the horse had an infection last Saturday. “We kept quiet about it, gave him three easy days, and actually did a bit of work this morning. You could say he was trained to the minute.”

At 38 Mullins’s training prowess has already matched his earlier excellence in the saddle which saw him win six amateur championships. He has the priceless ability to size up a horse’s potential, make a plan and deliver it. Hemmings is 31 years older and had his affection for horses forged when he first helped with a horse-drawn delivery round before setting off as a bricklayer’s apprentice. But the old fox from Chorley knows a fellow winner when he sees one.

For all the principals it was a golden day. But it was a horse that made it possible. Half an hour after the race Hedgehunter was being sponged down. The breath had not steadied, the fire of battle not settled as he stomped around the paddock. You could see what he had been through. Men and women may be part of it. But the real wonders of the Grand National are the horses at the heart of it all.

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