Hedgehunter, the 7-1 favourite, won the 158th Grand National yesterday in a race that lived up to the Aintree reputation for thrills and drama. For the jockey, Ruby Walsh, there was the delight of a second National in six years; for the trainer, Willie Mullins, there was the satisfaction of the completion of a well-executed plan; and for the owner, Trevor Hemmings, there was the realisation of a 34-year-old dream.
But on the other side of the coin there was, for Tony McCoy, still without a National to his name, ill luck of the most bizarre kind. The nine-times champion jockey was six lengths in the lead on the strong-running Clan Royal going to the second Becher's Brook, the 22nd of 30 fences, when his mount was taken out of the contest by a loose horse swerving across the fence.
Hedgehunter was always travelling supremely easily in the four-and-a-half- mile marathon, run on a chill, damp after-noon. The nine-year-old, trained at Bagenalstown in Co Carlow, had shown his agility and boldness over the unique obstacles 12 months previously, when he led until tiring and falling at the final obstacle when in third place. This time, ridden more conservatively but still near enough the pace to show his joie de vivre, he scored an easy 14-length victory.
It was the fourth for an Irish-trained horse in seven years. Royal Auclair, a 40-1 shot ridden by Christian Williams and trained in Somerset by Paul Nicholls, came in second, a head in front of another outsider, Simply Gifted (66-1), who provided some compensation for Clan Royal's trainer, Jonjo O'Neill. It Takes Time (18-1) was fourth for Martin Pipe and Timmy Murphy, and Forest Gunner a most gallant fifth for woman jockey Carrie Ford, though she never threatened to win.
Hedgehunter's victory, as a well-backed favourite, caused the bookmakers a fair amount of grief, with estimated losses of £30m. And although Clan Royal's mishap brought no joy to fans of the day's events in Windsor, there was at least a certain topicality about Royal Auclair's name, bringing a handsome reward to coincidence each-way punters.
Of the 40 starters, 21 finished, and no horse or jockey was hurt. Last year's winner, Amberleigh House, the 88th to defend his title, was never in contention, finishing in 10th place. Of the other two previous winners in the field (it was the first time there had been three since 1963) Bindaree, running for the fifth consecutive year, finished 11th and Monty's Pass 16th.
But the day belonged to the two Irishmen, the near-billionaire businessman who vowed in 1971 that his name would one day be on the trophy; and of course to their gallant, talented bay gelding.