A philosopher's circuitous pursuit of fame; 150th GRAND NATIONAL: Outsider has the chance to take advantage of inside knowledge and make up for an old disappointment

Taffy Salaman sent Churchtown Boy in pursuit of Red Rum and National glory 20 years ago. Now, as Ken Jones finds out, Northern Hide gives him another chance
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One of the many stories Taffy Salaman likes to tell concerns navigational difficulties in the Swedish Grand National. More precisely, those of a fellow British jockey who, after twice walking the course, still wasn't sure that he would be heading in the right direction.

In the circumstances it made sense to let others take up the running but he wasn't entirely happy with that option. "What if I find myself out in front," he said. "If you're that worried, buy a map," Salaman chuckled.

There was certainly no lack of direction or purpose from Salaman 20 years ago today, when, then as now a trainer, he almost changed the shape of National history. His Churchtown Boy was the horse that came closest to preventing Red Rum from winning his record third Grand National, his second placing achieved just 48 hours after he had won the Topham Trophy over a circuit of the National course.

Salaman, who sends out the 50-1 chance Northern Hide for today's National with similarly ambitious dreams, comes across as something of a philosopher. Quite recently a car collided with the horse he was walking back from the gallops. "We were both thrown upwards and the horse came down on to the bonnet smashing it's forelegs, and had to be put down," he said. Salaman's injuries could easily have been a lot worse, but he is still unable to rotate his right arm above the elbow. As he says, you never know what is around the next corner.

It has been that way since he first got a taste for racing as a 12-year- old in bed with tonsillitis. He had been reading about Chinese mandarins and saw a horse of that name winning on television. "All kids get ideas of what they want to be and from that moment I saw myself as a jockey," he said. Soon afterwards he was up on scrawny ponies hired for five shillings a day, riding bareback and causing havoc in the streets of his neighbourhood.

The son of a Welsh mother and an Arab father, Marshalla Ali "Taffy" Salaman was raised in the then grim, impoverished Cardiff area of Tiger Bay, that was home to the rugby league great, Billy Boston and former British heavyweight champion, Joe Erskine. At 15 he went as an apprentice to the great Ryan Price, trainer of Gold Cup winners over jumps and Classic winners on the Flat, but there was to be no rush of fame, just the disappointments that many young jockeys experience.

Moving on after a year he waited three more for his second ride. Most of the time it was simply a case of hanging on in there, bringing home 36 winners in his best season. He worked for Earl Jones, then Posey Lewis, whose establishment was swallowed up by the development of Cardiff airport, and Colin Davies.

Unusually, he continued to ride after setting out as a trainer and, but for the weakening effects of flu, would have been on Churchtown Boy in that 1977 pursuit of Red Rum.

"The horse was so lively that I didn't have to think twice about running him in the National but I wasn't up to it myself, so Martin Blackshaw got the ride," he said.

If a mistake at the second last took so much steam out of Churchtown Boy that he finished 25 lengths adrift of the winner, Salaman remains convinced that advice given to Tommy Stack by Brian Fletcher, who brought Red Rum home in the Nationals of 1973 and 1974, was critical to the outcome. Fletcher felt that if Stack had kicked on from Becher's Brook the previous year, Red Rum would have worn down Rag Trade. "That was it," Salaman said. "After Becher's we were run into the ground."

Jumping Becher's on Churchtown Boy in 1980, the last of his five National rides, Salaman almost landed on top of the fatally injured Alverton and came off.

Riding is one thing. Training is another. "It is very difficult to combine the two because trainers and jockeys have a different perspective," Salaman added. "Inevitably, the trainer gets much more involved. Jockeys often form attachments, but most of the time they are simply going from one horse to another."

Salaman handed in his British licence to train 10 years ago, electing to transfer his skills to Saudi Arabia for several seasons. It was only at the start of the current campaign that he reopened for business at the Russley Park stables at Baydon in Wiltshire, where Northern Hide joined him from Ireland last October to swell the stable strength to 12.

An attempt at emulating Churchtown Boy by tackling the Topham Trophy on the first day of the Aintree meeting was the trainer's preferred target for Northern Hide, but he was outvoted by the gelding's joint owners, Graham and Maureen Hunt and John and Wendy Cook. "They went for the glamour," he smiled.

Left at the start and kicked into at the final ditch, Northern Hide was eased into ninth place when contesting the Mildmay of Flete Chase at the Cheltenham Festival last month. Earlier, at Sandown, on unsuitably fast ground, he was beaten 21/2 lengths by one of his adversaries today, Dextra Dove, after two more, shorter-priced, National rivals, Go Ballistic and Avro Anson, had departed from the contest.

"Nice horse, well balanced, jumps well, not short of guts and knows when to take a breather," Salaman said. Paul Holley has the ride and his report after taking Northern Hide out on Tuesday was well on the right side of favourable.

Brilliant sunshine added greatly to the attraction of a shallow Wiltshire valley. A small prayer? "Make it a big one" Salaman replied.