28 March 2004
Brough Scott talks to two-time Grand National winner Carl Llewellyn about the thrills and spills that make Aintree special
The racing was quite ordinary at Newbury on Friday, the expectation wasn’t. It was just eight days to the Grand National and it showed. “This is the one that gives you the buzz,” says Carl Llewellyn, twice a winner of the Aintree showpiece and veteran of 11 others, “to be honest, at this stage it is the only one.”
He seemed to grow as he spoke. A couple of minutes earlier he had been a smallish, crop-haired, fit-looking, grey-suited man in his late thirties remarkable only for being stopped by autograph hunters. But when he talks of Aintree, Llewellyn comes alive. The eyes glow and the deep voice warms with affection and authority. “This is our big moment,” he says, “riding round Aintree is our big thrill and the memories of Party Politics (1992) and Earth Summit (1998) are something beyond imagination.”
There is no need for boasting because right before your eyes you have the sportsman’s Clark Kent moment, all the more emphasised for the modestly with which he plays it. In just a few words the apparently ordinary figure transports you to a world where only a Superman can rule.
“Party Politics was an absolute giant,” says Llewellyn, “at 18.1 hands he was the tallest Grand National winner. But he was beautifully balanced. Richard Dunwoody fell straight in front of us at Becher’s and Party Politics just side-stepped round him. He was the living best.”
The Llewellyn teeth flash surprisingly straight between the bent and much broken nose (an attempt to straighten it seems to have erred some 30 degrees to the east). These are old recollections but on a chilly afternoon they warm him and us like hands around a brazier.
“Aintree is an extraordinary place,” he continues, “you never know how a horse is going to react to those fences. Take Earth Summit, he was so gutless at home he wouldn’t walk over an empty crisp packet. Most of us thought he would never face those big ditches. He got to the first of them, was all wrong, but got across without touching it. I remember thinking `OK, you’ll do’. “
This year Llewellyn rides Bindaree, winner under Best Mate’s jockey, Jim Culloty, in 2002 as Llewellyn was off with a broken leg, just as he himself had been a substitute for injured pilots on Party Politics and Earth Summit. “Bindaree should have a great shot,” Llewellyn says. “He did really well to win the Welsh National and before that he gave me a blinding ride in the Becher Chase over the National fences until falling at Valentines. I still don’t know how it happened. If you look at the video he jumped perfectly and somehow didn’t put his landing gear down.
“The funny thing is,” the jockey continues about his four-legged partner, “that at home he is so well he will try to run away with you, while on the track he is too slow to pull.” The mock derogatory remarks are those you would throw at a team-mate and for the outsider it is essential to realise that this is exactly what horse and rider become when the starter launches the 40-strong field on an epic 30-fence, 4½ -mile journey next Saturday. Having a good horse underneath you at Aintree is one of the most binding friendships any sport has to offer.
It is a relationship forged in a furnace that offers thrill as well as fire. The media focus understandably tends to emphasise the dangers in a way which leaves the mere observer quaking at what lies ahead. But that’s not how it seems to the jockeys.
“Look,” Llewellyn says quickly, “we have worse situations nearly every day, riding horses who have been badly schooled or can’t jump. Going to Aintree as I will to partner a horse with some experience is something you look forward to more than anything all year. Anyway, the worst you can do is get a fall.”
The statement is not so much cavalier as toughly realistic. Llewellyn’s website invites you to run your cursor over the jockey’s body to call up the fractures incurred during his 22 years in the saddle – assorted ladies may be pleased that some parts remain injury free. But, at 38, these are dues to be paid and the relish with which Llewellyn is handling his much-prolonged Indian summer is much more than bravado.
“It took me a long time to get going,” says the farmer’s son from Pembrokeshire. “I went to Stan Mellor’s when I was 15, didn’t ride my first winner until I was 20, didn’t really get going until four years later. It gave me a sense of perspective. Now I am lucky enough to be riding good horses for a big stable (that of the much resurgent Nigel Twiston-Davies) and I honestly think I win more races that I shouldn’t than I ever did.”
Experience and enthusiasm are a potent mix in any life. An hour later an old stayer called Tom’s Prize was the beneficiary, Llewellyn giving him an easy lead for much of the Newbury three miles then having enough firepower at the last to repel the attack from Ruby Walsh on the odds-on favourite. It was little short of a master class.
Yesterday morning the cherry blossom was out in the paddock at Aintree, the hospitality tents were sprouting, the mowers were rumbling and in the centre of the track a few early-bird locals were testing the none-too-demanding delights of the nine-hole golf course. Most of the fences were already gorse-topped and pristine but the first was still undressed, just thick wooden stakes and that solid foundation you catch glimpses of if horses bash holes on the second circuit.
Looking at it is to appreciate how tough are the roots. Talk to Llewellyn and realise that applies to jockeys, too.