Grand National: General McCoy bows to power of the virgin soldier

Clan Royal comes up short as A P plays third fiddle in his 11th attempt to fulfil quest
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The Independent Online

Like John Francome, Jonjo O'Neill and so many others, even the finest can fall short in the longest, cruellest race of them all. As 20-year-old Niall "Slippers" Madden, who started out a virgin soldier in the steeplechasing spectacular and returned to be overwhelmed by Irish back-slappers after conquering all on Numbersix-valverde, the vanquished warrior Tony McCoy could only trudge quietly to the weighing room, digesting the numbing sensation of defeat once again.

In this, his 11th National ride, he finished third on the joint-favourite Clan Royal. That equals the best the 10-times champion has achieved in an event that continues to deride his talents. Other than a similar position on Blowing Wind in 2001 and 2002, he has failed to finish. Will McCoy, so imperious in so many races, ever make that triumphant walk that lesser riders have known?

The jockey himself, of course, would be philosophical and argue: "It simply wasn't meant to be", but as one of his great weighing-room companions, the dual National winning jockey Carl Llewellyn, maintained last week: "It wouldn't be against AP in any way if he never won a National because there's a hell of a lot of luck involved, but he'd feel a little bit like he hasn't achieved as much as he could."

O'Neill, the trainer of Clan Royal, will empathise. He failed to get round in the saddle and still awaits his first National victory as a trainer. Two years ago, Clan Royal's rider Liam Cooper lost his whip and almost took the wrong course after the last fence. A year ago, under McCoy, the same horse was put out of the race when a loose horse cannoned into him. Yesterday, O'Neill opined: "He ran a blinder. He jumped well, and with two to jump I thought he was in with a chance, but he was just beaten by better horses. They were too good for him."

Clan Royal's owner, JP McManus, for all the exploits he has enjoyed with horses like his Champion Hurdler Istabraq, has also been denied a place on the National winners' podium. In contrast to Flat racing, this race pays no respect to the mega-wealthy; even those with a reported fortune of £400m. The record of the Irish businessman, gambler and golf aficionado, who had just returned from Augusta, now reads: no winners from 23 runners over 25 years.

"He made a couple of mistakes, including a serious one at the ditch [19th] and I think he did very well to get back into the race," McManus said of Clan Royal. "He made another mistake late on and after all that he has given a very good account of himself. Tony said he ran his heart out. I am just pleased he got round and got home safe."

A false start, caused by Ross Comm lunging at the tape, evoked shades of 1993, the year of "Captain Cock-up", as as the starter Keith Brown was labelled, and the void race. This time, after the tape had been repaired, Peter Haynes, got them away at the second attempt. You did not envy those intrepid jockeys. The elements were positively evil as the wind whipped across the course and the showers sluiced down.

As always, though, it was never going to impair the enthusiasm of the racegoers, among whom was the ubiquitous Coleen McLoughlin, the fiancé, it is now barely necessary to mention, of Wayne Rooney. Described rather coyly by the racecourse as a "local celebrity", she presented the prize to the winner of the Looking Good Style Contest.

The real contest is never a fashion parade; it requires heart, bravery and belief among the riders and, as always, promised a myriad of tantalising story-lines; not least the question of who would prevail in the private match between the siblings, Paul Carberry, cleared to ride Sir OJ despite a nasty fall on Friday, and his talented sister Nina on Forest Gunner. And what would be the fate of Red Rum's trainer, Ginger (Donald) McCain, in this his valedictory year as a trainer, as he prepares to hand over to his son, Donald Junior?

The irascible McCain had been awarded the Freedom of the Steps (those adjacent to the Queen Mother Stand, from where he has watched his horses run for over 30 years) attempting to record a fifth National victory. McCain, who was three-handed yesterday with 2004 winner Amberleigh House, Ebony Light and Inca Trail, was typically self-deprecating.

"The only other people who have earned this kind of award at Aintree are the Earl of Derby and the Earl of Sefton, two very distinguished gentlemen. I'm very touched that it's been given to a broken-down old bloke like me."

Decrepit he may call himself, but if it wasn't for his feats with three-time victor Red Rum, alongside whom he wants to be buried next to the winning post - and he says it in all seriousness - it is possible that the race would not have survived a quarter-century ago when the course was threatened with closure.

In the event, his Inca Trail was one of only nine of the 40 starters who completed. The gallant 14-year-old Amberleigh House was pulled up at the 21st and has been retired - by, and along with, his trainer. The others included Nina Carberry on Forest Gunner, who was last home. It may have vindicated McCain's claim, yet again, that a woman will never ride a National winner, though the rest of us will suspend judgement until we see her on a serious contender.

The fact that none of champion trainer-elect Paul Nicholls' six runners finished is testament to the capricious nature of this great race. McCoy would readily agree.