Racing / Grand National: Fiddlers finds a granny bond: Rosemary Henderson is about to take a bow at Becher's Brook on a chaser who has progressed from Pony Club ranks

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The Independent Online
WHEN THE Grand National fences changed, so did the shape of the race. Recent modifications to what some considered macabre obstacles have encouraged those who pay bills for top- class beasts to risk their horses around Aintree. Thus, when The Fellow turns out on Saturday he will be the third Gold Cup winner in the last four years to attempt the double.

While this trend has added to the quality of the event, it has stripped away some of the allure. A large proportion of the field now compete from out of the handicap and the chances of success for horses with a touch of 'romance', apparent no-hopers from prosaic backgrounds, have been reduced.

Yet this year, there are two West Country runners for whom victory would be hardly less fanciful than when Velvet Brown won on The Pie.

Double Silk, trained in Somerset by a retired dairy farmer, was rescued from an eventing yard, while next door in Devon is another animal from an unassuming background.

Like Double Silk, Fiddlers Pike, who used to be a Pony Club horse at a livery yard, is a former pointer. But there is more to him than that. There is Rosemary Henderson. She owns Fiddlers Pike, trains him, and on Saturday, at the age of 51, will ride him over the most demanding fences in British racing.

Henderson has seen a lot of Grand Nationals, but only on a screen in the corner of her living room. She started riding at a time when most professional jockeys are considering retirement and competing around Aintree never entered her imagination. 'We watched it every year and had a bet in it,' she said yesterday, 'but I never thought I would ride in it.'

Matters changed for Henderson when Fiddlers Pike came into her life and that of her husband, Bill, a vet. He used to be called out so frequently to attend the gelding's bad back at a local livery yard that he was eventually given the patient.

And at Folly Gate, near Okehampton, on the fringes of Dartmoor, Fiddlers Pike recovered so well that he began to raise Henderson's aspirations. Like the hardy sheep and ponies on the land around him, he showed fortitude last season to win the Warwick National and Chepstow's Grand National Trial. 'After that everyone said he ought to run in the National, but he wasn't entered so he couldn't,' his rider says. 'But at the end of the season we decided we'd aim for it this year.'

This season has been barren for Fiddlers Pike, now 13, but the rains have now come to help him and his rider, who had to apply for Jockey Club dispensation to compete in the race as she had not partnered 15 winners under Rules.

Henderson is a grandmother and some may see this venture like sending someone down the Cresta Run in a wheelchair, but she is not a tight-bunned figure knitting in a rocking chair. Every day she rises at 6am to muck out her seven horses, rides out, and spends the rest of the day supervising the secretarial side of the vet's business.

She is not overawed by Aintree, or disturbed by the image of being an overreaching amateur. 'I don't care what they think of me,' she says. 'I haven't been over the bigger courses that often but I've been racing 20 years and I don't think of myself as inexperienced.

'I haven't seen the fences but, if you've got a good jumper, I don't see why they should ride that much differently to any other course.'

Henderson is not fearful for herself or her horse. 'I have great confidence in 'Magnus' because I think he has great confidence in himself,' she says of the horse whose moniker comes from the idiosyncratic scientist of 1970s television.

There are quirky elements to the quadruped too and his mannerisms can be learned only by experience. Because of this, Henderson feels that the horse is not greatly inconvenienced by having her occupy his saddle. 'He probably would do better if ridden by a younger, male professional,' she says, 'but he might not enjoy it quite so much for quite so long.'

Henderson is not ashamed to admit that her only allegiance in this escapade is to personal thrill-seeking. 'Basically, I run him for my pleasure and not for the pleasure of other people,' she says.

The rider envisages the pleasure lasting some time on Saturday and hopes that her torso, unusually upright in the saddle, will at least be seen crossing the line. 'I'd like to get round in midfield, or even better in the first 10, and I'm not going just to get round,' she says.

This conviction, she realises, may be diluted on first sight of Aintree's threatening spruce. 'I might be daunted when I walk the course on Saturday morning,' she says. 'But in that respect it's quite nice to leave it to the last minute.'

(Photograph omitted)