Racing: Powell propelled by Grand finale

Grand National: A winner who has sampled the highs and lows still has reason to believe in the future; Sue Montgomery talks to a jockey who is still riding his luck at 38
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The Independent Online
ONE OF the aphorisms of racing is that a man who owns an unraced two-year-old will never be a candidate for suicide. Along the same lines it might be said that a jockey with a good ride coming along in the Grand National will have no thoughts of retirement. Ask Brendan Powell about that one: this year Mudahim, but next year, Young Kenny.

At 38 Powell is one of the jump weighing-room's veterans. Evergreen is an adjective often applied, given that he began his riding career in point- to-points in his native Co Kildare a quarter of a century ago. He will be the second oldest competitor next Saturday - Graham Bradley pips him in the elder statesman stakes by a month - on the oldest horse. "Evergreen?" he said. "Evergrey, more like."

So far as the Grand National is concerned Powell has been there, done that. The race has already taken him through the emotional gamut; his victory on Rhyme `N' Reason in 1988 was followed by bathetic disappointment 12 months later. "I was riding Stearsby," he said, "and he was jumping and travelling really well and then for some reason jumped straight into the big ditch at the 11th.

"I sat on the ground and just cried my eyes out. I realised that I was not going to have that incredible feeling of winning again. Then I picked myself up and went back to watch the finish, and it was Jimmy Frost, one of my best friends, who won it. And then I was just happy as Larry for him and I thought well, if I never even ride in it again I don't care."

In his broader career, too, Powell has weathered the storm and come out the other side smiling. The nadir was a three-year period at the beginning of the decade when he suffered a perforated stomach and broke his left femur twice. The first break actually cost him a second Grand National winner, coming as it did two hours after he had been booked to ride Party Politics in the 1992 race.

"I know I have been considered injury-prone, but since 1994 I haven't hurt myself," he said. "It may be tempting fate to say it just before Aintree but that's nearly five seasons and that's a lot of rides. This year I've had more than 420 rides and just seven falls, which is unreal. But after what I have been through it's probably self- preservation - I can sit back further than most."

Powell gave the definitive exhibition of limpet impersonation on Rhyme `N' Reason, whose victory was one of the greatest escapes in National history. At Becher's Brook first time around the horse landed on his belly with his legs splayed, slithered along the ground and then scrambled up with the thin Irishman still attached.

"It didn't actually feel that bad," he said. "I knew he'd slipped and was down, but just how badly I didn't know until I saw the pictures. All he had to do was blink or turn his head to left or right and I'd have been off. But he stayed straight. And that's the sort of luck the whole game turns on."

Powell puts his durability down to addiction. And his services, both behind the scenes and in the public eye, are in constant demand. Only eight men have ridden more races than he this season, and only two - Richard Dunwoody and Peter Scudamore - in the sport's history. Few jockeys will have covered as many miles on the training grounds and his 18-month-old Mercedes already has 114,000 on the clock. He will never be a champion, but he is the professional's professional.

"I simply love what I do," said Powell. "I love schooling young horses and I love riding in races. OK, I ride a lot of bad horses, and there's nothing worse. But when you get on a good one, and feel that power underneath you, and feel it jump and travel and win, it's just such a buzz. And I'm so lucky in that every year I seem to get on to some real nice ones, young horses who I know will draw me on to the next season. I know I will have to stop sometime, but not yet. Not while I'm still enjoying it so much."

Powell's eyes may be firmly fixed on the prospect of partnering one of those magnets, Young Kenny, in the millennium National but acknowledges that before that there will be more forlorn outsiders in this year's field than Mudahim.

The Philip Hobbs-trained 13-year-old, plagued by injury, has raced only thrice since landing the Irish National two years ago, but showed Powell a glimmer of his old ability when fourth at Uttoxeter in February. "He took the mickey a bit that day on horrible ground, dropped himself out and then when I half went to pull him up he pricked his ears and ran on again. He stays and he should jump round."

Powell turned down the ride on better-fancied Kendal Cavalier, whom he schooled earlier this week. He explained: "I said I'd ride Mudahim ages ago - it will probably be his last race - and I value being loyal, even if it's cost me some winners along the way. And anyway, I wouldn't have wanted to jock Barry Fenton off the other one."

It would probably be stretching even the National's propensity for fairy- tales to predict victory for Powell on Saturday. But nice guys don't always have to pass the post first to win.