The Grand National always yields a winner with a story, so they say, and last year's story was a belter: a 100-1 winner, Mon Mome, for the first time since Foinavon in 1967, from the Herefordshire stable of one of the most singular of trainers, Venetia Williams.
Williams has entered three horses for the world's greatest steeplechase tomorrow week, although she expects only Mon Mome to make the cut, and what a difference a year makes; William Hill yesterday were pricing him at just 11-1, which is not merely a consequence of his heroics at Aintree last year, but also in last month's Cheltenham Gold Cup, in which he finished third at 50-1 behind Imperial Commander and Denman. If anyone saw fit to stick a tenner each-way on Mon Mome in each of the six races he has run these past 12 months, the profit, taking full account of the three in which he pulled up or finished fourth or worse, comes to a rather fabulous £1,335.
It is with only the Grand National in mind, though, that I turn into the gates at Aramstone, the handsome estate in marvellous rolling countryside south of Hereford that used to belong to Williams' grandparents. Getting on for five minutes later, I park my car next to her Aston Martin DB9. A man from the Racing Post once observed that Williams has a very long drive and very long legs; on both counts this is unarguably true.
She's a charming woman, quietly spoken and a little shy, or at least reserved, a characteristic typical of her upper-middle class upbringing that has been misinterpreted in some quarters as "glacial". Last time I was here, in 2001, she showed me a cartoon from Horse & Hound in which she and Jenny Pitman were depicted as Posh Spice and Scary Spice. Back then, the prospect of challenging Pitman's status as the only woman to train a Grand National winner was very much a dream. A year ago on Sunday it became glorious reality.
She had two runners in last year's National, Mon Mome and Stan, the latter ridden by her stable jockey Aidan Coleman, who had been given the choice, debated it for almost a week, and will doubtless rue to the end of his days not opting for Mon Mome, whose jockey was Liam Treadwell, famously offered some post-race dental advice by the BBC's Clare Balding. "I gave both jockeys the same instructions, to go round the inside," Williams recalls. "I said to them, 'Daylight in front of you is gold dust'. One of the major hazards in the National is getting brought down by the horses in front of you."
She speaks from painful experience. As an amateur jockey of growing repute she came a cropper at Becher's Brook, far more formidable then than now, in her only ride in the race, on Marcolo in 1988. "The following year they levelled off the landing side." A small smile. "Whether I'd made such a big hole that it was the only way they could repair it, I don't know."
Whatever, the fall knocked her unconscious, and she was signed off by her doctor for 10 days. In her first race back, a novice hurdle at Worcester, she clipped the top of a fence and landed head first, breaking her neck, which was the end of a promising riding career and nearly her life; the so-called "hangman's bone" was broken clean through and if it had moved even the tiniest bit she would probably have died. As it was, she lay in traction for two months plotting the next phase of her career, and though nobody would venture that a broken neck might have been for the best, even if she'd had the success riding that she has had training it is hard to imagine that she would have found as much fulfilment. For Williams, there is no thrill like that of producing a winner for a hopeful owner, the more so as she buys most of her horses herself, and then matches them with the right owner.
That was the case with Mon Mome, snapped up cheaply and speculatively as a three-year-old after just one run in a bumper out in the sticks in France, and in due course sold to the septuagenarian Vida Bingham.
Which brings us to the rooftop viewing area at Aintree for owners and trainers, where Williams and Bingham stood last year as the 162nd Grand National got under way. "Pretty Star had been a bit disappointing in the previous race, finishing fifth, so I remember thinking, 'That's Aintree for another year'. Then Stan fell at the fence after Becher's, so at least from that point onwards I was only following one set of colours, which made it a bit easier."
As the race reached its climax the on-course commentator cried, "And as they turn for home in the Grand National any one of 12 horses can win". That Mon Mome was one of them was pleasing, but not yet exciting. "I remember thinking that 12 was a few too many," she says. "But then, going to the last, he and [the 2008 winner] Comply Or Die started to assert a bit, and from there going to the Elbow he started forging ahead. From the Elbow to the line he ended up as one of the most impressive Grand National winners for many years."
As he passed the post, a winner by 12 lengths, Williams and Bingham hugged like schoolgirls celebrating their GCSE results. "And I said something slightly silly. I said, 'You'll have to run as fast as you've ever run to get through the crowds to lead him in,' forgetting that Vida in her youth had been a very good athlete (good enough, indeed, to have once held a British record in the 4x110m relay). Anyway, I got to the bottom of a rather rickety spiral staircase, and turned around half-expecting to see 75-year-old Vida sluicing down the banisters."
A friend drove the Aston Martin back to Herefordshire that evening, not least so that Williams could sit in the passenger seat fielding "zillions" of phone calls. They arrived at the yard just after the horsebox, which had been plastered with rapidly printed stickers saying "Mon Mome, 2009 Grand National Winner" and had accordingly been parped all the way down the M6 and M5. Williams then went to the Lough Pool Inn, her local pub, and declared open house. She was due for dinner at the home of some friends, but had the best of excuses for being late. "I finally rocked up there about midnight. And there was another friend there having dinner, a chap with a small aircraft he does acrobatics in. He asked if I'd like him to do a victory roll over the yard the following day, which he did. It was great fun."
I ask her to identify the greatest perk of training a 100-1 winner of the Grand National. The multiple darts world champion Phil Taylor once told me that when, as a rank outsider, he won his first world title, he got a huge kick being approached for months afterwards by people in his home town of Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent, telling him that his win had bought them a washing machine, a holiday, a car. Did Williams get the same treatment in the Herefordshire lanes?
"There were a few windfalls but I think people had been conservative with their wages. The biggest perk is still being greeted with smiles, 12 months later."
Nor, I suppose, is winning the National bad for business? "No, it's helpful. If I meet people who have only a passing interest in racing, being the trainer of the Grand National winner means something to them. In fact, we were having our best season already last season. We'd had a double at the Cheltenham Festival, so this was really a big dollop of icing on the cake. But it's been a good introduction. Even in these credit-crunch times, new owners have come to me."
Even looking beyond the Grand National razzmatazz, it is not hard to see why. After all, with every winner comes further validation of her unorthodox training methods, whereby all her horses get turned into the fields every day.
"I'm a great believer," she says, "in treating horses as naturally as possible, as closely as I can to how they are designed by nature. So they all get a few hours in the field every day, which to me is important for many reasons. It's great for them to have a buck and a kick, and a proper roll. It keeps the blood flowing through their joints, and gets fresh air into their lungs. They do get very muddy and we don't groom them until the day before the race, when they have a shampoo and set. I'm not sure other trainers see the value of that, and certainly it's hard work. I employ an army of yard staff purely to service this regime. But a horse is not meant to be cooped up in a stable for 23 hours a day. A number of our horses win best-turned-out prizes, and I believe they look good mainly because they are healthy within."
And so, with this as her creed, she will point the Aston Martin up the M5 to Aintree next week. Now that she knows how to win, will she be going with greater expectations than ever before? "Expectation is a bad word to use in racing," she says, with characteristic restraint. "But there's every reason to go with higher hopes."Reuse content