The fame of winning the last two Grand Nationals and being tipped to become the first rider to land three in a row has brought the media to Leighton Aspell’s door. But he still starts every morning lugging the muck sack up the barn.
When the great Australian Scobie Breasley was champion flat jockey over here in the 60’s he lived in a luxury apartment in Putney, he used to have breakfast in bed and drove to the races in a Bentley. Leighton’s wife Nicola does usually bring breakfast for her husband but that is after she has dropped the three kids off at school and it is eaten in the yard where he has been since daybreak.
Race riding is the public job for the afternoons and a once weekly trip to ride horses at Lambourn for Many Cloud’s trainer Oliver Sherwood. But the mornings are spent around the dozen boxes Leighton rents in the extensive Coombelands training establishment created by Guy Harborough from a dairy farm outside Pulborough in West Sussex in the 1960s. Last Thursday was still Easter holidays and so Nicola brought the three girls with her and by then their father had already done a pretty full shift. The horses last week were his usual mixture of rehab and pre training and an individual point to pointer belonging to journalist Hannah Lemieux. Full time assistance comes from Annie Hudec and Kate Rigg, Nicola is a central part of the show and Leighton does everything including, of course, the muck sacks.
On Thursday there had been a schooling session with Hannah and her pointer first thing; former top hurdler Starluck had a swimming and horse walk routine readying him for a return to full training with David Arbuthnot; another big four year old was cantering in preparation for its new career with Charlie Longsdon; a couple of Gary Moore’s were over for repair; a young horse was just being started, and three assorted others were using the break from training that Leighton offers.
“It was Amanda Harwood’s idea,” explains Leighton easily. “I had been riding out here for her in the summer as neither Oliver (Sherwood) or Lucy (Wadham) do much summer jumping and Amanda said there was always a demand for rehab and pre training. It keeps me busy and helps pay for the girls’ ponies and my golf.” As with all things Aspell, the sense that there might be anything exceptional in the hours worked or the effort needed doesn’t even get a thought. With his big ears protruding from the side of his cap he looks like a big friendly rabbit and it takes the arrival of a TV crew to remind you that this is the man on the brink of setting records in one of the most demanding ordeals in sport.
After Leighton and Annie Hudec had cantered horses up one of Coombelands many all weather gallops for the cameras, he came up to the microphone and suddenly you realised that he has lugged history as well as muck sacks over the line. “At the last,” he said at the beginning of one particularly vivid Aintree recollection, “without looking round you are hoping that there are not a couple of people sitting behind you on the bridle. You are looking out of the corner of your eyes, looking for shadows, using your ears to hear something. That’s what is going on in the back of your mind but your focus is in front of you, you can’t control what is behind you.”
“When I got to the elbow the first year John Hunt was commentating and I could clearly hear him say ‘Pineau de Re is still 6 lengths clear.’ It was the best thing I had ever heard in my life. Last year it was identical. I heard ‘Many Clouds four or five lengths clear’. I became aware of Paddy Brennan closing on me in the last 50 yards but the race was won by then.”
These are practiced memories as is next week’s analysis, but none the worse for that. “You just ride your horse and the race as best you can”, he says as the three girls chase around the straw bales behind him. “The stats and history may be against us but I am in one piece, Many Clouds and I have had a great association and his ratings have improved year by year as he has strengthened. Last year we came into the National on an upward cure. You have a lot of horses that win the National and they completely empty their tank of fuel and energy and you never see that horse again. But this year his couple of runs against Smad Place and Don Poli showed that he is as good or better than ever. His run at Kelso was great and I schooled him yesterday morning over six fences and he felt really good and is in great nick.”
John Francome once famously said that the horses he rode were “not friends just business associates” and seven thousand rides and 23 years since a small but fast growing Kildare born apprentice called Leighton Aspell made all the running to win a little race at Hamilton you can see why logic has to overrule sentiment down the seasons. But Many Clouds has clearly made it from business to the warmest of friendship. Leighton has ridden him in each of the 24 races and ten victories since they made a winning start in a bumper at Wetherby in February 2012, and the only time they have been on the floor was when brought down in the 2014 RSA Chase at Cheltenham won by O’Faolain’s Boy, a likely major contender this Saturday. Away from the cameras Leighton waxes over his four-legged friend.
“He is a big horse, 17.1 hands, and he was that size when he was four. We have seen an improvement every year. He never looked bad but he was all angles, we could not get enough food in him to fill that frame and it began to come on as a five year old, six year old, seven year old. As he was getting stronger we could train him harder and then we started to see improvement. We could not train him hard as a four year old because he would become just skin and bone.”
“He could jump six foot but you try not to ask him to because he puts in too much effort. He was like that as a young horse and you had to bite your lip and not ask him for those sort of strides because he would do that all the time. In the National if he did that thirty times over four and a half miles his batteries would be getting very low by the time we got to the closing stages.”
“Last year’s tough season has really, really made a man out of him. Going racing he is a real warrior now. I am delighted Don Poli is out of the National and rate Carlingford Lough a real danger. Silviniaco Conti looked good with blinkers at Ascot but I don’t think he will get the trip. Most of them don’t stay. Many Clouds ticks all the boxes but I won’t be playing safe. There is less traffic up amongst the first half dozen.”
The words practically puts the barn side listeners on the start line and the rider’s enthusiasm extends to dismissing concerns about the post race oxygen shortage that, has seen Many Cloud stagger after his races and caused Leighton to dismount to allow his giant partner to be washed down and recover before entering the unsaddling enclosure. From an Animal Welfare point of view it’s surely time the Aintree authorities made this mandatory, as at Badminton Cross Country, with the bonus of freeing the winning and placed jockeys for media attention whilst their horses get immediate and necessary relief.
But in this game human welfare is also ever under threat. Annie Hudec’s husband Ladislav is in a wheel chair after his horse tripped over a bandage which had worked loose from a front leg during a canter. Next door to Thursday’s race meeting at Fontwell, not 15 miles from Pulborough, an inspirational figure works his way round the hydrotherapy pool. It is Chris Kinane who used to ride Dancing Brave in the Harwood’s greatest glory days and who remembers the young Aspell when he moved from Reg Hollinshead’s flat race academy in Staffordshire to the Sussex challenge of Josh Gifford’s stable at Findon.
“He was always a good rider,” say Chris, whose skull was split open when a horse kicked him in the paddock at Wolverhampton. “He is very calm and balanced in a race and I think he is riding better than ever.” There were five Aspell rides to test Kinane’s verdict that afternoon at a Fontwell redolent with stalls and kiddies’ roundabouts and a tall bloke with untied shoe laces dressed as the White Rabbit. Race riding is a violent, fast and dangerous business but at 39 there is serenity not senility in the way Leighton takes his horses through the tight turns and undulations of the Sussex track. “He’s a horseman,” Oliver Sherwood had said earlier. “He uses his long legs and keeps his horses together. He’s also a great team player and I can tell you if the horse is good enough, he is good enough.”
There are no winners but the novice Laugharne runs a fine second in the first and the debutant The Mighty Don finishes well to be third in the last. 23 years is a long time to be in any profession albeit Leighton took a well chronicled two-year ‘sabbatical’ back in 2008, and between races he charts his own evolution.
“I was a huge fan of Dunwoody when I was starting out,” he says. “Then McCoy came and changed everything. We began riding shorter and with our toe in the iron, we had to up our fitness because he was pushing these things the whole way from start to finish. Then Walsh started over here and it was a different sort of riding, very quiet. He smuggled his horses into a race and was very economical with his energy.”
At 39 conserving energy is no doubt important to the rider too, and Leighton admits he has to work harder at a fitness which has been upheld over the years by his running talents that saw him clock 3 hours 29 minutes for the London Marathon in 2010 despite having to walk the last five miles because of a knee injured badly enough four days earlier at Southwell to get a red entry in his medical record book. But the question of retirement and joining the likes of Warren Greatrex and Roger Varian, his colleagues at Josh Gifford’s, as a trainer is waved away.
“Maybe I could expand what I am doing now,” he says. “But I know a lot more poor stressed trainers than I do rich happy ones. I am happy doing what I am doing now and will see what it might lead to. I love the riding. Oliver has got 60 horses, Lucy has 20 and my body is fine. If their horses are healthy, they are constant supply of winners so I would be a fool to walk away from it.”
This sort of thing usually cloaks a touch of Dylan Thomas’ ‘raging against the dying of the light’ but Aspell’s optimism has the same sort of understated calm that we have seen in the maelstrom or a Grand National field. So it’s no surprise to hear that such characteristics were there from the very beginning. “From day one,” says his father Paddy Aspell back home in Kildare, “he showed a natural affinity with horses. I found he was always sympathetic. For a child starting on a pony I never saw him get ‘fustulated’. He always sat and figured it out.”
Paddy is 69 now but even after a brush with colon cancer he still rides a horse every day and continues to work at the Sean Mulryan’s Ardenode Stud at Ballymore Eustace which he joined as manager in 1998. In a long career with horses he has been a conditional jockey, been in charge of the yearlings at the Gilltown Stud and even held a licence as a trainer to whom his son was originally apprenticed much to his mother Mary’s disappointment back in 1992.
“Leighton was an avid book reader, very interested in school and good at Maths,” says Paddy. “But he was completely hooked by the horses. He had been riding the yearlings at 12, he was mad to try it as a jockey and I didn’t think I should stand in his way. In Ireland he could race ride at 15 and when he was 16 I sent him over to Reg Hollinshead. He was only 7stone 7lbs then but he went on a big growing spurt and had to go jumping. I would be biased but I think he is riding better than ever. He has always been gentle and sympathetic in the saddle. You don’t need to get all rough with horses. I used to tell him one of Mohammed Ali’s favourite sayings, “violence is the result of an exhausted mind.”
Many Clouds will be Leighton Aspell’s 8th Grand National ride and Paddy and Mary Aspell will be over from Kildare as usual. “Yes,” says the jockey’s father, “we have been there for every single one starting with Supreme Glory who was second in 2003 at 40-1. But for the last two years it has not been until about 6 o’clock that we have made contact because of all the media attention. Then there was only time for one quick drink before he was back in the car with Nicola and the girls for the drive to West Sussex because he had a 4.30 start in the morning to finish the horses before getting across to Lambourn for the celebrations. Even if Many Clouds wins again I don’t expect it will be any different.”
Leighton Aspell may become many things, but a Scobie Breasley doesn’t look like being amongst them.