Young partner puts Powell in National picture

A veteran rider has a chance to seal an unforgettable perch in Aintree's pantheon
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Brendan Powell is afraid of the moment he will have to retire from race-riding and it is not because of a belief that people will talk behind his back. He knows they will not bother. He knows the great fearless collective of the weighing room will hardly remember he was ever there.

Powell's 40th birthday is in the calendar this year but he enjoys as much as ever testing body and mind against those in his sweaty workplace. He enjoys the battle against men young enough to be his offspring.

"They don't treat me like an old man and I don't treat them in a special way," the man from Co. Kildare says. "Some of them say I'm a big kid as it is anyway. I'm always taking the piss out of people like [Tony] McCoy because I had my first ride before they were born. And I rode under Rules before Richard Johnson and Timmy Murphy were born. But I can still go round with them now and maybe even ride horses they wouldn't ride themselves.''

It is a carousel Brendan Gerard Powell has enjoyed since he began point-to-pointing as a 14-year-old. His has been an amazing career in a pastime as notable as 'gator wrestling for its longevity. Yet he continues to deny those who predict his final ride. "I've got articles from 1992 in a scrapbook here, and there were people saying then I was going to retire and train," he says. "I'm not saying I'll be going in another eight years' time and, at the moment, I'm not riding winners and I'm not making money out of the game, but I'm still enjoying it and I'm going to keep going.''

However, while the end may not be now, it is certainly nigh. It is not a moment he dares contemplate hugely. For it will mean the umbilical cord which has fed the great joy in his life has been snipped. "I've been at this for 26 years and I haven't missed a year," he says. "Apart from [Richard] Dunwoody I've had more rides than anyone else in history. It's been a great innings and I've enjoyed every moment of it. Especially the boys I've been riding against.

"They're what I'll miss most when I do pack up because they're a great bunch. I've seen people like Scu and Graham McCourt retire in the years I've been riding and people saying how much they're going to be missed. But once you've been out of that weighing room for a fortnight people forget you were ever in there. So you've got to enjoy it while you can."

On Saturday, Brendan Powell gets the opportunity to sample what is probably the greatest piece of enjoyment a jockey can get. He rides in the Grand National at Aintree, where to complete is heavenly and to win is divine. Powell knows both sensations.

It might be appropriate if the Irishman was riding either The Last Fling or Call It A Day, though, in fact, he will be partnering the much less apt Young Kenny for the Yorkshire trainer Peter Beaumont. It is not an unfancied combination, much the same as Powell and Rhyme 'N' Reason when they went into this race 12 years ago.

"I can remember it like it was yesterday," Powell says. "He was the best horse on the day and if he had stood up two weeks before in the Gold Cup he would probably have won there and never run in the National.''

Being on the best did not look like being much of a comfort to Powell however when Rhyme 'N' Reason slithered to the floor at Becher's first time round. The jockey looked as though he was sitting on a Lilo and, by the time Powell pulled his horse erect, there was just one other behind him and a faint rumble of hooves disappearing in the distance.

"He just slipped on landing when he came over Becher's and, at the time, it didn't feel anything like as bad as it looked on television or in the photographs," Powell says. "It all happened so quickly that I didn't have time to think. I remember considering pulling him up, but he felt sound and I was lucky that there was plenty of time to get back in the race. By The Chair I was back in mid-division. And that was without trying.''

When Little Polveir fell five out, Rhyme 'N' Reason found himself in splendid isolation. He thought he had won. His pilot had to persuade the horse the job needed finishing and it took a tussle with Durham Edition on the run-in to revive interest. "If I'd got beat," Powell remembers, "David Elsworth [the winning trainer] would have shot me.''

There are times when we have wondered whether doctors have been close to loading the rifle too for Brendan Powell. A long career means a long injury sheet. But no single incident has been as terrifying as a fall at Newton Abbot this season when he was trampled by a following horse.

Three ribs were shattered on his right side and all but one on the left, leaving the main chamber of his skeleton in pieces. One lung collapsed and the other turned into a fleshy receptacle for his own blood. During the 10 days the rider spent in intensive care, his body fuelled by great draughts of pure oxygen, doctors told Rachel Powell she might not have a husband to take home.

By the time he could focus on the white-clad shapes at the bottom of his bed, Powell was told his injuries were consistent with a motorist hitting a brick wall at 65mph. Without a seat belt on. One doctor told him he had seen nothing like this apart from the case when he treated a worker who had fallen off an oil rig.

As he lay incapacitated, Powell was not losing many of the hallucinatory races which were played out in his sedated mind. He does not believe himself to be the fading Methuselah that others might imagine. "There are so many good jockeys around at the moment and the competition is greater than it ever has been," he says. "Every six months there seems to be a new Tony McCoy and once these lads start riding winners everybody wants them. Five months ago, Tom Scudamore was famous because he was his father's son but now he's riding well and getting five or six rides a day.

"It is a young man's game but, at the end of the day, if a horse is good enough I can ride it as well as anyone riding. If you watch day in and day out you'll see that anything I've got on with a chance of winning has either done so or run well.''

They might have broken much of Brendan Powell's body, but it has never been possible to make the slightest nick in his spirit or self-confidence.