MCCAIN’S GRAND RETURN

4 April 2004

Amberleigh House gives Red Rum’s trainer a fourth National triumph

It’s the longest, most romantic and least forgiving 487 yards in sport. The Aintree run-in has always been a place of heartbreak and dreams. Never more so than when the 12-year-old Amberleigh House drove through to snatch this National from the exhausted and wandering Clan Royal only a few strides from the post.

It was the ultimate of fairytales for Ginger McCain to saddle another National winner 27 years on from Red Rum’s third and final triumph. It was the coolest of rides for Graham Lee to wait right until the run-in before trying to summon the last dregs of energy within

Amberleigh House’s little frame to launch one final assault on the leaders. But for Liam Cooper on Clan Royal the video will be the living nightmare of the might-have-been.

No one can prove it, but the straight course he initially steered after the final fence when the line to the finishing rail is diagonally to the right, is likely to have cost him distance and momentum enough to account for the mere three lengths Amberleigh House had at the winning post. Add to that the loss of his whip five fences out and Cooper will rue the day that he joined the long list of jockeys who have had history snatched from their grasp.

For so long, he had given the J P McManus-owned, Jonjo O’Neill-trained nine-year-old the ride of his life. He had avoided the early carnage, which had seen two go at the first and two at the third. At the fourth, favourite Jurancon and Tony McCoy turned over slap in the path of a sidestepping Amberleigh House. Bechers first time round took out eight, including the 2002 winner Bindaree, who was crowded out while Amberleigh House had to jump from a standstill and got well behind.

Clan Royal had then followed the bold running leader Hedgehunter for a circuit and, by the time they again crossed the Canal Turn, Cooper’s main job was trying to steady Clan Royal from going too soon. Facing the long gallop home he, Hedgehunter, and the Martin Pipe outsider Lord Atterbury were at least 20 lengths ahead of another trio, and although Amberleigh House and last year’s hero Monty’s Pass were amongst that number they looked forlorn hopes compared to the still aggressive pace of the leaders. Over Valentine’s, Hedgehunter, Clan Royal and Lord Atterbury came. But Clan Royal then belted the next hard and low and Cooper’s whip flew away as he grabbed the reins to keep his stumbling partner upright.

Clan Royal’s strength seemed undimmed. He, Hedgehunter and Lord Atterbury came over the Melling Road  and then the second last together. Amberleigh House was a good 10 lengths away in fourth, Lee still maybe saving something.

Up front there were three tired horses, jockeys driving in desperation. Cooper’s right arm flailed as he slapped Clan Royal forward. Going to the fence, Clan Royal’s long tail flashed in tiredness and resentment, but the rider’s will was obeyed. Into and over the last he went with more power than his rival. Hedgehunter was down, Lord Atterbury struggling. Clan Royal and Liam Cooper were on the run-in at Aintree and the Grand National was theirs for the taking.

Cooper threw his whole being into the horse beneath him. Clan Royal was desperately weary but Liam gathered his reins, slapped back with his hand, drove furiously forward, forward to claim the victory ahead. Only it was not ahead. It was out diagonally right to where the rail passes the Chair Fence. Clan Royal was galloping in the wrong direction.

Thirty-one years ago, Richard Pitman did something similar when he reached out and thumped Crisp and the giant Australian lumbered away from the course, lost his momentum and allowed the young Red Rum to rush up and snatch him right on the line. Now another Ginger McCain runner was closing. Not with the panache of “Rummy” but closing just the same.

Suddenly the terrible truth smacked itself into Cooper’s sweat-soaked eyes. He had to alter course almost 90 degrees to starboard. He was still strong enough to get back alongside Lord Atterbury and slug ahead of him along that final rail. But the exhaustion was clutching into his floundering stride and behind him, Graham Lee was strong and composed as Amberleigh House battled closer, closer.

Coming right past us, Clan Royal’s legs stretched gamely forward, Cooper flapped furiously with that right hand. But the sand had run out almost as completely as with Crisp all those years ago. Like Red Rum, Amberleigh House pushed out a white nosebanded head and galloped into history.

Lord Atterbury was only two lengths away third but was so shattered afterwards that it took bucket after bucket of water before he was re-hydrated enough to take his well deserved spot in the place of honour. There Amberleigh House stood proud as old Ginger looked fit to burst. Clan Royal sucked air in the next stall as J P McManus supped on the old adage of “so near and yet so far”.

Then the horses were away from all the tumult and the shouting. Away to water and private time with those closest to them. Clan Royal’s groom was in tears but she put her hand on the neck of the horse who had given his all. Ahead young Donald McCain squeezed the head of Amberleigh House and you realised just how pony sized this National winner was. “He’s so game,” said Donald, as the horse walked on. “He was third in this last year, Clan Royal beat us here in November but in the last few weeks this little chap has really flourished.”

On cue some shreds of cherry blossom blew across the stables and on the bridle with its little twist of Red Rum’s mane. Oh, was there ever a place that seared dream and nightmare quite so deep?

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