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The Independent Online
BRENDAN POWELL should have been warming up for the Grand National with a few good rides last week. Instead he sat at home in his smart Oxfordshire bungalow, nursing the latest in a lurid catalogue of injuries. "Rib's popped out," he said, gingerly adjusting his position on the sofa. "Felt like a knife going in. I'll be sorted for Aintree, though. No worries." Sidelined, but not inactive: chattering with a softened Irish brogue on his mobile phone, studying racing videos and intercepting the more suicidal lunges of Brendan Jnr, a toddler predictably devoted to his rocking horse.

Powell senior itches for the real thing. He and Carl Llewellyn are the only National-winning jockeys with confirmed rides in this year's race, and Powell can't wait to get back to the scene of the greatest victory of his career, when he hauled Rhyme 'n' Reason off the floor at Becher's Brook to beat Durham Edition in the 1988 National. That day dominates his sitting-room, in paintings and photographs. One of Rhyme 'n' Reason's horseshoes sits on the fireplace. But Powell is not the sort to live in the past. He believes that Dextra Dove, his mount on Saturday, is the one to bring him an elusive second victory: "It's my best chance for years," he insisted.

Dextra Dove fell heavily last time out, and has had extensive massage treatment in a bid to get him ready for Aintree. Whether or not he will get there is still in the balance, but Powell remains confident, with good reason: Mary Bromiley, the osteopath treating the horse, is also treating his rib injury.

Powell's introduction to the National fences in 1987 was painful. "I was riding Glenrue," he recalled. "We got as far as the third, and I broke my arm off him." The horse burst a blood vessel approaching the fence. "They go all blank on you when that happens. We turned over the ditch, and I got a kick from a following horse. But it was a heck of a buzz. I was sitting there holding my arm thinking: `I wouldn't have missed this for the world.'"

There was recompense the next year, when Powell and Rhyme n' Reason came back from the brink of disaster. "He was a class horse," Powell remembered, "with a good turn of foot." This was just as well. They cleared Becher's Brook on the first circuit, but the horse stumbled on landing, spreadeagling on the turf. "He sat down like a dog," Powell laughed, pointing out the relevant photograph on his wall. "Suddenly we were last, and I was ready to pull him up, but I thought, let's see what happens . . ."

What happened was that Rhyme 'n' Reason travelled smoothly through the field to be back in contention. Durham Edition and Chris Grant led over the last, but Powell somehow extracted a final effort from Rhyme 'n' Reason to forge ahead on the run-in. Many people still talk of it as the finest ride in modern Grand National history. What does Powell think of it? "I still feel sorry for Chris," he said. "He had always been my hero."

The win established Powell. The following season was his best ever, and he returned to Aintree in 1989 with high hopes of a repeat win. He rode Stearsby, a horse the jockey had helped to acquire for the trainer Gerald Ham. "I fancied Stearsby a lot," Powell recalled, "and in the race he jumped like a buck until the 11th. He jumped straight into it and turned over. I sat there as the other horses sailed over with such a sense of anti-climax. I thought, `Last year I won, and look at me now.' I nearly burst into tears."

Undaunted, Powell was back the next year with Ghofar, an inexperienced horse. "The fences frightened him a wee bit," Powell said. "But he jumped round, very carefully." So carefully that they finished 14th. "He learned a lot from it, and ran very well the next year."

But Powell watched the 1991 Grand National on crutches, with one of the two broken legs that would between them keep him out of the saddle for nearly 15 months. The injuries damaged his career. "Other jockeys take the rides you would have had and do well, and that makes it harder to come back."

Come back he did, although his next ride in the National was last year. "I don't have to be there," he said. "I've won it. I'd rather ride a winner at Hereford on National day than a 1,000-1 shot in the big race." Do Be Brief, his mount last year, started at 66-1, odds belied by the horse's run. "He was right up there until the 20th fence. We caught the top of it and went down."

This year will be different. "Dextra Dove is ideal," Powell said. "The trip won't bother him, and he's a careful jumper, not extravagant." But he tipped over in his last race, didn't he? "Exactly," Powell said, grinning. "So did Rhyme 'n' Reason."