Nine years ago, Joe Tizzard went to Aintree as an overnight sensation. At 17, still an apple-cheeked country boy, as lean as he was long, he was one of the youngest ever to ride over those famous fences. Unfortunately, Straight Talk fell at halfway, and the notoriously capricious gods that govern the place have not been much kinder to him since.
A couple of years later, he rode the favourite, Double Thriller. They hit the deck at the very first fence. Then there was Earthmover, the horse who first anointed Tizzard by winning the hunter-chase at the Cheltenham Festival: twice they were fancied for the National, and twice they fell at the fourth. In all, Tizzard has ridden in the race eight times, and so far he has managed to get round once, when Montifault finished fifth in 2003.
It is not as if he needed bringing down to earth. Tizzard was never a tall poppy - not when he broke Tony McCoy's record by riding 91 winners as a conditional, nor when promptly elevated to stable jockey to Paul Nicholls. His modesty served him as well in winning an Arkle Trophy, on Flagship Uberalles, as in being replaced by Timmy Murphy within a couple of seasons.
He retains a palpable affection for Nicholls, even though he has been overtaken not only by Ruby Walsh but also by Christian Williams since Murphy left the yard. Tomorrow week they team up anew in the John Smith's Grand National, Walsh having abandoned the stable's runners in favour of Hedgehunter - just as he did in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham a fortnight ago. That enabled Tizzard to pick up the mount on Cornish Rebel, who was still going strongly when losing all chance with a blunder three out.
Certainly the National's familiar redemptive properties could not be applied to many more deserving candidates this year. After all, it would be fitting if such a topsy-turvy race could finally fulfil the talent of a rider whose career has so far worked out back to front.
There is no way Tizzard was a better rider at 18 than he is at 26, yet nowadays he gets only a fraction of the opportunities.
"I know a lot more now than I did then," Tizzard agreed. "Looking back to when I rode 91 winners, I didn't really appreciate quite what I'd done. It all seemed so simple. It never dawned on me until a couple of years later, when I'd lost the job at Paul's and had a quiet couple of months.
"I suppose it did all happen back to front. But I don't resent that at all. Of course I'd love to be put back in that position now. Give me exactly the same season as I had then, and I would ride more winners now, no doubt about it. But it was a great opportunity, it put me on the map. You take things on the chin, and crack on."
Three years ago, Tizzard broke his back and spent nine months on the sidelines. He was lucky to walk again, yet managed 61 and 58 winners in the next two winters, and if he is unlikely to surpass that this season - with 39 so far - he is finding fresh purpose in the expanding stable of his father, Colin. He does, moreover, have legitimate hopes for Cornish Rebel, a brother to Best Mate who was only foiled in a photo for the Scottish National last year.
"He travelled really well at Cheltenham until he hit the third last," he said. "Obviously he's doesn't want to be in front too soon, but I had Hedgehunter and War Of Attrition ahead and was going to follow them through. Knowing he stays so well, I was gutted."
Nicholls will not persevere at Aintree with the blinkers Cornish Rebel wore at Cheltenham and Tizzard added: "There is that little quirk about him, but there are a lot of similar horses who really come alive at Aintree. If he does take to it, then he is going to run a huge race.
"My record in the race will be the last thing on my mind. Everyone knows the National is a lottery, and I have won over the fences, I've finished third in a Foxhunters' Chase, third in a Becher Chase. I'd love to win it for Paul, and I think he'd be very pleased for me, too."
NB: Dancing Lyra
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