Grand National: Carberrys write a fresh page in National history
Chris McGrath talks to the first brother and sister to ride against each other in Aintree's great test of jockeyship
Wednesday 05 April 2006
If genetic engineers ever set out to devise the perfect Aintree jockey, they might start off by trying to clone Paul Carberry. As things stand, only Sir OJ in the John Smith's Grand National on Saturday can profit from the mastery that won the race for Bobbyjo seven years ago. But Richard Ford, the trainer of Forest Gunner, has secured the next best thing.
Over the past couple of winters Carberry's younger sister, Nina, has approached a level of parity with male rivals that is possibly without precedent. Her genes contain much of the flair and instinct that separate Paul from his peers, and while her first experience of riding Forest Gunner over the National fences was disappointing - they parted company at the third in the Becher Chase last November - no rider has been better qualified to make Ginger McCain repent of his obstinate misogyny.
As the first brother and sister to contest the great race, Paul and Nina will be endlessly interrogated over the coming days and their discomfort is already obvious. Like their father, Tommy, who won the race on L'Escargot in 1975 and trained Bobbyjo, they communicate most naturally through the withers of a horse. Nina will exhibit her enormous smile, but Paul will permit only the odd glimpse of the unfettered sense of mischief that prompted him to dismount Bobbyjo via the rafters of the unsaddling enclosure.
"She's always been a very good rider," he said yesterday. "I'm sure I'll be having a talk with her, but it's just a case of riding each fence as it comes. We've always had good craic. I nabbed her on the line at Naas one day, beat her a short-head, and she wasn't too impressed. But I'm very proud of her, of course I am."
Paul's more expressive side can be witnessed most vividly in the hunting field. Eddie Ahern, though a Flat jockey, is considered a rare daredevil across country but even he blanches at some of the things he has seen or heard of Paul. "The worst was probably a drain, about 10 feet deep and six feet across, with a hedge on the other side," Ahern said. "I couldn't imagine any horse jumping it, never mind a jockey pointing a horse towards it. If you fell in, you'd need a digger to get out. But Paul gives horses so much confidence, they think they can do anything. He has balls of steel."
The siblings work for the leading trainer in Ireland, Noel Meade - Nina chiefly in bumpers and amateur races. "This natural way with a horse seems to run in the family," Meade said. "Nina has great hands and great judgement, just like your man. But the similarity ends there. She's a little bit more - how shall I put it, would 'stable' be the word? At her age Paul lived on a knife-edge. I'm glad to say he's settled down a good bit, but he was a wild card. I tried to steer him in the right direction, but he's not easy to steer in any direction. He's full of life, full of fun - they both are - only when he started off he was hard to handle. But then that's the way he goes, and that's the way he rides."
Just so. You could not expect him to be picaresque in the saddle and monastic out of it. And Meade's patience would never be exhausted with such a rare talent at stake. "He's an unbelievably natural rider," he said. "If he could do the weight on the Flat, and had any interest in it - which he didn't, even though he was champion apprentice - well, as good a jump jockey as he is, he would have been Piggott-like. His sense of what a horse could or couldn't do was quite uncanny. There's no question he has brought that to jumping. But he is so brittle, and has often ridden when he's sore. When he's 100 per cent, I doubt there's a better jockey anywhere."
As for Nina, Meade approves of her decision to remain amateur. "The life of a professional jump jockey is tough for anyone, but it's very, very tough for a woman," he said. "She wouldn't have as much experience over fences as people might think, she never rode in point-to-points every day of the week. But she is very dedicated and can stay top at what she's at."
Certainly Nina has shown her temperament for the biggest stage. Last year she beat the professionals in a handicap hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival and last month she returned to supply another abiding memory, albeit in defeat. Her recovery on Harbour Pilot when three-quarters on the deck in the hunter chase was a miracle of equilibrium.
Nina herself is dismissive. "Oh, 'twas just a bit of luck," she said. "He stayed straight, that's all. Otherwise I'd have come off. I didn't have time to think about it." She is not being afforded that luxury about her historic assignment on Saturday, and is no less impatient as a result. "I can't wait," she said. "I remember when Bobbyjo won, it was just a dream: we jumped every fence with Paul. Forest Gunner there the first time was an anti-climax, all right, but it wasn't his fault. He slipped into the fence and threw me over his head. He got over but left me hanging off him. I just hope I last longer this time."
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