Horse racing: Earth-shattering National

Llewellyn scales the Aintree summit again as only six master the mud in a race touched by tragedy
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EARTH SUMMIT has climbed the ultimate peak. In gruelling conditions that sent the Grand National back to its roots as a test of heart and courage in horse and man, the 10-year-old gelding, ridden by Carl Llewellyn with a perfect balance of sympathy and determination, became the 151st name on the great race's roll of honour. But he had to call on his deepest reserves of bravery to repel the challenge of the top weight, Suny Bay, runner-up for a heartbreaking second successive year, by 11 lengths.

The two unflinchingly gallant horses came home a distance clear of an exhausted Samlee, who was followed in by St Mellion Fairway, Gimme Five and Killeshin, the only others to complete from the 37 who set out. It was the smallest number of finishers since Ben Nevis beat three others 18 years ago.

The state of the ground, made deep and difficult by overnight rain, added height to every one of the 30 fences and treachery to the take-offs, and made the four and a half miles seem interminable. And the toll the course took was the ultimate one in three cases: Pashto, Griffins Bar and Do Rightly suffered fatal injuries.

It was a second National win for 32-year-old Llewellyn, who scored on Party Politics in 1992, and a first for Nigel Twiston-Davies, who took out a training licence nine years ago with the former champion jockey Peter Scudamore - who never won a National as a rider - as assistant.

There was also a sense of justice as Aintree gave something back to one of her own. Earth Summit carries the colours of Nigel Payne, who has been the publicity officer at the racecourse since 1976 and was in the front line during last year's turmoil. His five partners in ownership are the ex-professional footballer Ricky George - whose previous brush with fame was when he scored Hereford's winner against Newcastle in the 1972 FA Cup - Bob Sims, Gordon Perry, Peter Earl and Mike Bailey.

Earth Summit, like Party Politics, was a chance ride for Llewellyn as his usual jockey, Tom Jenks, has a broken leg. Jenks was in the paddock beforehand to give advice which clearly worked and it was difficult to fault Llewellyn's performance.

Eighteen were still running as the French raider Ciel De Brion, giving his teenage rider Thierry Doumen a tremendous experience, led at the water, chased by unconsidered Greenhil Tare Away and St Mellion Fairway, running the races of their lives.

Earth Summit, backed down to 7-1 favourite before the off, had steadily drawn closer and on the run to Becher's the second time took up station on the wide outside. He made his sole error of judgement as he had to stretch over the drop, causing Llewellyn to lean back, arm raised for a moment in self-preservation. Suny Bay and Graham Bradley were also going easily and after Ciel De Brion's departure five from home and that of Greenhil Tare Away a fence later the race settled to a match between Earth Summit and Suny Bay.

Llewellyn said: "I knew if I could just get mine popping his fences in a rhythm he must go well, because he stays forever and handles the ground.

"We steadied up after the water jump and hacked down to Becher's," added the Welshman. "Brad looked round after three out and told me we were 30 lengths clear, and it had to be one of us. And it was me. But then I'm a bit of a jammy git."

Earth Summit, carrying 10st 5lb against Suny Bay's 12st, was first over the final fence, but did not shake off Suny Bay until after The Elbow. "I thought I'd hack up going to the last, but half-way up the run-in he got very tired,"Llewellyn said. "The ground from The Elbow was very deep and I was worried. But I had the weight advantage."

The victory was the culmination of a long-term plan which looked doomed to failure two years ago when Earth Summit badly injured a foreleg. Bought for just 5,800gns as an unbroken three-year-old at auction - and backed by his owner at 33-1 with Ladbrokes to win a National before the year 2000 - the gelding needed over a year off the track.

This season he returned to add the Welsh National to the Scottish version he annexed as a novice. Yesterday he became the first horse to win all three races; the prize of pounds 212,569 brought his earnings to nearly pounds 400,000. Payne said: "When he injured himself the vets told us that he would recover, but that he would probably never race again."

Twiston-Davies has no illusions about Earth Summit's limitations. "Extreme distances are what he wants," he said. "He is so slow at home that if we want to give another horse confidence, we work it with Earth Summit.

"I was worried about his jumping on this track as he is deliberate. He'll never win a Gold Cup - he isn't good enough - but we'll bring him back here next year for another go."

Hard-driven Samlee added to Richard Dunwoody's admirable record in the National, a length and a quarter in front of Andrew Thornton and St Mellion Fairway. Of the other fancied horses, Rough Quest made a brave effort to repeat his 1996 victory before Mick Fitzgerald pulled up before the penultimate fence; Him Of Praise refused four out; and the first fence claimed Challenger Du Luc and Tony McCoy.

In the aftermath of last year's events at Aintree, Payne produced a book about the day they stopped the National. Yesterday's nobler deeds have given him a happier story to tell. And one in the true spirit of the race.

The odd bets, page 16