Racing: Summit reaches for new pinnacle

Greg Wood talks to a jockey who can make Grand National history with last year's hero of Aintree
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The Independent Online
YOU COULD argue for hours about the best jockey never to have won a Grand National, and in Liverpool's bars a week tonight, people with nothing better to do probably will. They will chew over names like Francome, O'Neill and Scudamore, all great champions in their time, but always reduced to also-rans by two circuits of the big fir fences.

There is no better illustration of the capricious streak which runs through Aintree racecourse as surely as the Melling Road. But there is another side to its mercurial nature, one which Carl Llewellyn knows all about. He has been a jump jockey for 13 years, and a clever, stylish one too, yet he has never threatened to win a championship, or a Gold Cup or a Champion Hurdle.

At Liverpool in April, though, he is almost on first-name terms with the mounted police, who have led him back on the National winner not once, but twice.

A third victory, on last year's winner Earth Summit, a week tomorrow would make him only the second jockey this century to complete a trio of Aintree Nationals.

It would be a lasting testament to the talents of one of the weighing room's great professionals. Like many of his colleagues, Llewellyn is an excellent horseman, but as the power in National Hunt racing continues to be concentrated in ever fewer hands, one whose opportunities are often more limited than he has a right to expect. He has also suffered the usual long list of riding injuries, and not only that, he has often broken bones at the worst possible moment.

The months immediately after losing your claim and joining the professional ranks are the most important of any young rider's career. The first thing Llewellyn achieved as a senior rider was a broken leg. Nine months later, he returned to work. Two mounts later, he dislocated his elbow, and missed two big winners as a result.

It was, he says, ``character building''. But fate paid him back in the end. Both his National victories, on Party Politics in 1992 and Earth Summit last year, came on horses whose regular partners were injured.

Yet despite his success 12 months ago, he was surprised to be booked for Earth Summit last week, in place of Tom Jenks, his rider in every race so far this season.

``After I'd won on him, it wouldn't have been totally out of the question to think I'd have a chance of keeping the ride,'' Llewellyn says. ``But it was immediately stated that Tom was back on him, which was fair enough, and when they won the Becher Chase this season, I discounted him and I was looking around for another ride.''

Now, though, he will be able to soak up the atmosphere at Aintree aboard one of the better fancied runners, and the experience will certainly not be lost on him. Some jockeys know only how to communicate with horses, but Llewellyn is not one of them.

``As you get older, you definitely take a lot more in and you think your way around,'' he says. ``Party Politics was a bit of a blur, I got whisked around and it was all over very quickly, but now at each jump and on the run between fences, you can have a hell of a lot going through your mind. You hear the crowd, you see what's going on, how other people are going and jumping, you even know what's fallen and what's gone on.''

There is no great trick to riding Earth Summit, who is a stayer, plain and simple. He does not like lining up in the middle of a big field, so Llewellyn will start on the outside, but otherwise, he will simply hope to jump and stay on like he did last year.

``The first circuit was as smooth as it could ever get in the National,'' he says. ``We just crept ever slowly closer, and Brad [Graham Bradley, who was on Suny Bay, the eventual runner-up] was doing exactly the same thing, but on the other side of the course.

``We were within a few lengths of each other all the way round. Then, at the third fence second time, he put in an extra stride and hit the board of the ditch. That was nasty, and plenty of horses would have fallen, but he landed safely. When I got to the Elbow I was very happy, I knew Suny Bay wouldn't come back with that weight and on that ground.''

``That ground'' was as bottomless as it has ever been at Liverpool in recent memory, and unlikely to be repeated a second time in a row. This is enough to persuade some punters that Earth Summit has had his year and does not have the shining talent which made Red Rum the last horse to win consecutive Nationals, a quarter of a century ago.

As Llewellyn points out, though, Earth Summit has also won a Scottish National, on fast ground. ``The secret to this horse is a marathon trip, not the ground,'' he says. ``He turned in at Ayr and went 15 lengths up before he reached the third last fence. Even if he's being outpaced on the first circuit on faster ground, he's still in there with a chance. It's not the first two miles that count, it's the second.''

At 33, Llewellyn will probably never have a better chance of a third National. He has also started to look beyond the jockey's life, and is far too smart to do what many riders seem to do, which is to wake up one morning and decide to retire, but with no idea of what they will actually do for the next 30 years.

``It always surprises me when people do that, because I've been thinking about it for a lot of years. I've thought of some things, and dismissed others. Training would be one possibility, or something in the media, where you don't have the cold early mornings.''

There is no chance, though, that Llewellyn will hang up his boots if Earth Summit comes home in front next week. ``Definitely not. I've got a good job and I love it and I'm vaguely successful, so why change? If I win it again, I'll appreciate it even more than the last one and I'll milk every moment of it. And then I'll go for another one.''