Racing / Grand National Countdown: Politics profits from wind of change: Last year's victor was yesterday's horse until surgery offered a breath of fresh air. Ken Jones reports

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The Independent Online
SIX FOOT TWO, eyes of . . . ; actually brown eyes, set in a proud head that thrusts from withers higher than the longest measuring stick in Nick Gaselee's yard. By any equine standards, Party Politics is big. A colossus you might say, and many people will if he becomes the first horse since Red Rum to win the Grand National in successive years, only the second since Reynoldstown in the Thirties.

All of this hints at how important Party Politics is to Gaselee at a time when the majority of National Hunt trainers lose sleep over where the next solvent owner is coming from. A military background (one of his forebears, Sir Alfred Gaselee KCB, raised the siege of Peking during the Boxer Rebellion), five years service in the Life Guards himself, stands Gaselee in good stead, stiffening his resolve, now that the boom years are a distant memory. 'It was a lot easier then to fill your yard, not the struggle it is now, but you keep going,' he said, stoically.

There will be no sympathy from the cardboard townships, but for many trainers recession means fewer horses and desperate attempts to balance the books. 'The Lloyds affair was a blow because it affected a lot of prospective National Hunt owners,' Gaselee added. 'So you are always trying to cut the costs. Prize-money is better, but because overheads keep going up the margins are zero.'

If it wasn't for the marquee rental business Gaselee has set up with his wife, Judith, he probably would not survive the lean months when most of his boxes are empty. 'It employs some of the lads, and without it I don't think we'd be able to carry on,' he said. Normally, he has around 30 horses in training but as a result of the firm ground some have finished for the season and left his yard. 'One has a loyalty to one's owners,' he said. 'One has to be honest with them. That doesn't pay the rent, but it's no good keeping horses here under false pretences.'

Of course those laudable criteria do not apply to the massive nine- year-old brown gelding David Thompson bought from David Stoddart, as a surprise birthday present for his wife, just 48 hours before last year's National. 'Poor David, he took a lot of ribbing about it afterwards,' Gaselee said, 'but if the horse hadn't won, everybody would have said that he was a genius to get the sort of money he did for him, and to be honest I don't think he'd do any better now.'

This is due in part to the fact that Party Politics isn't as perfect as he looked last week in his paddock at Upper Lambourn. Imagine the effort required to get such a massive frame around Aintree's four and a half miles and over 30 fences, then imagine not being able to gulp down enough oxygen. Thus Party Politics breathes not through mouth and nostrils, but the narrow steel tube that runs from his windpipe to a small opening in the middle of his neck. Doubtless, some sensitive souls will find the remedy revolting but without it Party Politics might as well be pulling a cart.

When the horse ran badly at Cheltenham in January, having earlier been pulled up in the Hennessy Gold Cup, a decision had to be taken. 'We could have re-operated, but that would have put him out for this year's National,' Gaselee said. 'There was no alternative, other than to say if the ground became soft at Cheltenham we'd take a chance on getting more favourable conditions at Aintree. After a lot of thought, and discussions with Charlie McCarten, the vet who has done all the operations on him, and been a tremendous help, we eventually decided to put the tube in.'

From experience, a success rate of below 50 per cent with the small number of horses he'd introduced to the treatment, Gaselee knew that it was a big gamble. 'The horse has to learn to breathe with it, and some of them can't accept the noise of the wind and the air going down,' he said.

Party Politics responded remarkably well, winning the Greenalls Gold Cup in such convincing style at Haydock a little more than a month ago that the odds against him becoming a dual winner of the National quickly shortened. No horse has won both races in the same year, but as Gaselee said, there are first times for everything. Last year, in the run-up to an election, he thought the name too much of a coincidence. 'I remember thinking that the history of the National is littered with these stories, but come on matey, it isn't going to happen to you.'

A more profound assessment is called for now, especially as Party Politics' jockey, Carl Llewellyn, who leaves no doubt that he will be fit to resume the partnership after breaking a collar-bone at the Cheltenham Festival, feels the horse is going better than ever before. 'That was before Haydock, when Carl came to ride him work, so we had a bit on,' Gaselee smiled.

Having been around Aintree three times as an amateur rider, and winning the Kim Muir and the Foxhunters' at Cheltenham, he has no fixed ideas about how to negotiate the terrain, certainly not when dealing with a horseman of Llewellyn's calibre. 'It's awfully difficult to tie the jockey down in a race like this, and we never talked a lot about it. I couldn't tell Carl to do any different than he did last year,' the trainer said.

'Party Politics is a horse that loves to do things on his own, and Carl rode him brilliantly. For a top jockey it isn't easy to sit there very quietly, but he gave him a breather down to Becher's the second time around and let him go from there. I've always felt that if you have confidence in the horse and you get a bit of luck in running there is no reason why a good jumper can't get around Aintree perfectly well.'

We were sitting in the living room of Gaselee's charming cottage, and it was early in the afternoon. On a wall to the right of where the trainer sat there was a framed montage of last year's triumph, including the moment when, instinctively, Party Politics avoided Brown Windsor, who had fallen in front of him. 'Amazingly for such a big horse, he sidestepped the danger,' the former cavalryman chuckled.

As any number of trainers will tell you, it helps to be philosophical. There was a time when Gaselee, together with Fred Winter and Fred Rimell, trained jumpers for Sheikh Ali Abu Khamsin, whose Gaye Brief won the 1983 Champion Hurdle. He became the only Arab owner to pull out of racing, Gaselee recalls.

Twelve months ago, after the last jubilant supporter had been peeled off his neck, Gaselee strode towards the winners' enclosure, and there was a mad, exultant thunder in his ears. Who can confidently say he isn't about to hear it again?

(Photograph omitted)

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