Farewell Party for old campaigner

Aintree '96: Two experienced competitors embark on flights of fantasy as they seek historic second triumphs
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THE legendary 19th-century jockey Fred Archer once said, after partnering the equally legendary St Simon on the Newmarket gallops: "This isn't a horse, it's a blooming steam engine." Anyone standing on the downs above the Berkshire village of Lambourn watching Party Politics going through his paces might be forgiven for thinking the same thing, though perhaps for different reasons.

The giant brown gelding is a horse you can hear coming long before he trips into sight. As he goes through his paces under the watchful eye of his trainer, Nick Gaselee, he draws in great gulps of early-morning air through a hole in his throat, his progress up the gallops being marked by a regular rasping sound.

At the age of 12, Party Politics is the old man of this year's Grand National, but he has been there and done that. He was a topical winner of the race in the general election year of 1992, completed a circuit in the void race a year later, and finished a fine second to Royal Athlete last time.

His record is all the more laudable as he has suffered enough ailments and injuries over the years to fill a chapter in a veterinary manual. Broken blood vessels, a damaged hock, and fragile, easily bruised feet have been the least of his problems - more serious have been breathing difficulties. Before his National victory he had undergone surgery twice to correct a faulty larynx, then three years ago he had a tracheotomy, the insertion of a metal tube into his windpipe enabling air to bypass his nose and throat.

The fact that he has overcome his various tribulations is a credit to the skill of those who work with him, notably Gaselee, his vet, Charlie McCartan, and his lad, Buck Rogers. "The first we knew of something being wrong was when he was returned to us after being sold for 48,000 guineas at Doncaster Sales as a six-year-old," the 57-year-old Gaselee said. His breeder, David Stoddart, had some young horses coming through and wanted to cash in on Party Politics, who was one of the leading novices of the season. But at his post-sale examination the vets decided he had wind problems and he came back to us. In retrospect, of course, I am extremely glad he did."

Party Politics has been with Gaselee at Saxon Cottage stables since he was a five-year-old, through two different owners. Stoddart did eventually sell his horse, in a private deal believed to be worth pounds 80,000, to David Thompson, owner of Cheveley Park, one of Newmarket's biggest Flat-racing studs. Two days after buying him, Thompson and his wife Patricia watched their purple-and-pink colours carried to victory at Aintree.

The bodywork and engine may be a bit ropy, but the mileage is low - 26 races in seven seasons - and this is no old banger. This season has been geared entirely towards the National, which is likely to be his farewell appearance.

He has - intentionally - had only the one run, when he was pulled up behind Lo Stregone in the Greenalls Grand National Trial in February. "He didn't come back into training until just before Christmas, because we wanted to leave putting the tube back in as late as possible," Gaselee explained. "When he's on his holidays over at Cheveley Park, it's taken out and the hole closes over so he can breathe naturally. He only needs the tube to help him when he's under pressure.

"Then we were held up by the bad weather during the winter. Obviously you can't send a horse with a hole in his throat swimming, and when it's cold, the chill factor on the metal and the fact that the air he draws in is icy cold and goes straight to his lungs also limits what exercise you can do. So I was very pleased with his run at Haydock. He went really well for three miles until a lack of fitness told."

Party Politics, the apple of his trainer's eye, knows his way round Aintree blindfold, having jumped 76 of the obstacles without a fault. With his fingers crossed, Gaselee said: "He makes nothing of them, partly because of his size, but not just that. Though he's a tall horse, he's not massively built, like The Dikler or Mill House. He's very light on his feet, very agile." One of the abiding National images is that of Party Politics towering over his normal-sized rivals as he lobbed alongside them off the home turn in 1992. His strides are so long that he took 10 fewer than second-placed Romany King on the run from the last to the winning post.

Only one tubed horse has previously won the National (Tipperary Tim in 1928) and only four (Peter Simple, The Lamb, Manifesto and Red Rum) have regained their title after being beaten. Party Politics has every chance of being the next. His work last week, particularly a searching gallop under his big-race rider, Carl Llewellyn, last weekend, has delighted Gaselee: the Big Horse, as he is affectionately known around Lambourn, is set to run a big race.