Racing is unique among international big-bucks sports in that it regularly offers the chance for romance. In football, only the knock-out nature of the FA Cup can have the same effect, though the fun of a Portsmouth v Cardiff final tie has been carped in some quarters as being not quite the thing. But where horses are concerned – so unaccountable in their genetic inheritance, their behaviour and reaction to a given situation – not even the highest rollers consider they have a God-given right to success.
Giant-killing is more common in jumping than on the Flat, and the contest where lightning strikes with least predictability is the Grand National. But after a couple of editions that celebrated the so-called little man, Saturday's 161st running restored the natural order. It was a race for the professionals: trainer David Pipe, jockey Timmy Murphy and owner David Johnson.
As so, more often than not, it should be. Those who invest the most – be it time, dedication, attention, talent or money – towards becoming the best should, overall, reap the rewards. But in the National, because of its very nature, they know how many variables are involved and so do not really expect to. Victory, for them, is as sweet as for anyone when it comes, and the £450,640 first prize almost an afterthought.
For this particular team, it has not been for want of trying. Comply Or Die's success was actually the second for the Pipe stable, which David took over from his father, Martin, at the start of last season, but consider the figures that went before him. Before Pipe Snr sent out Miinnehoma to score under Richard Dunwoody in 1994, he had fielded 15 runners in eight years, and Miinnehoma was one of a squad of five. Thereafter he sent out 61, including a record 10 in 2001, which yielded two third places from Blowing Wind, another from Lord Atterbury and a fourth from It Takes Time. And this is the 15-times champion trainer.
Comply Or Die was Johnson's 14th runner. He did own Lord Atterbury and It Takes Time, but his first contender, Challenger Du Luc, fell at the first fence, and his second, Eudipe, was killed at the second Becher's when he fell for the first time in his life. Murphy was taking part for the 12th time, his best previous placing being when he steered Smarty into second place in the war of survival that was the 2001 running.
The 33-year-old jockey's elation was evident as he repeatedly punched the air and whooped up the crowd as he was led back in triumph. It was the culmination of a well-documented rehabilitation after problems with alcohol that led to three months in prison; he no longer drinks but he could taste the champagne in the moment.
"Unbelievable," he recalled yesterday. "Just to complete the course is an achievement – you only have to think of those who have never done that – let alone in front of 39 others. Anyone who starts off as a jockey will tell you it is the race that they want to win, and I'm no exception. You only dream of days like that and for most they don't come true."
As a rider, Co Kildare-born Murphy has always had silky skills, though they were six years ago overtaken by his personal problems. The man who gave him his chance after his fall from grace was Johnson, whose own tale is classic rags to riches. A docker's son, born in the last year of the war in London's East End, he has made his fortune in the money-lending business and is now CEO of Commercial First. His Grand National winner was named as the result of a competition among his staff.
Johnson picked Murphy to replace Tony McCoy after the multiple champion jumped ship to join the JP McManus outfit. The styles of the two riders could hardly be in greater contrast; McCoy imposing his will as the enforcer, Murphy just as strong but not as in anyone's face until it matters. Because of that culture shock the transition was not seamless but appositely Comply Or Die was one of the horses that went a way to dispelling doubts, one of four winners booted home by Murphy in the green-and-blue colours at Cheltenham in a weekend that proved make, not break.
Yesterday Johnson deflected praise to the team that gave him the moment that money cannot necessarily buy. "Timmy gave him a great ride," he said, "and the Pond House team have been brilliant. I didn't win it with Martin but the yard is very much a family yard, and David is proving a great trainer in his own right."
Pipe Jnr, 35, inherited a going concern, a fact he was been quick and humble to acknowledge after striking with just his third runner in the great race. "It's great for everyone, for the whole team," he said. "I couldn't do any of it without them. I've had a great teacher in my father, and David Johnson has been tremendous. I don't have any overheads and have a very privileged upbringing and really appreciate it."
Pipe may have been born with a silver shovel in his hands, but he has done much of his own digging with it. A successful point-to-point rider, he went to the US to serve his time with Michael Dickinson, like his father a highly original thinker; to France for a spell with Criquette Head-Maarek; and to South Africa, with Joey Ramsden. Back home he carried on his apprenticeship by running an extremely successful point-to-point yard next door to Pond House. Its graduates included Lord Atterbury.
Like his father, he clearly knows the time of day. "I've been a bit quicker than dad in winning the race," he added, "but this horse looked tailor-made after his win in the Eider. He looked like he'd take well to the course, had schooled well at home and was well-in at the weights."
Murphy acknowledged his near-contemporary's professionalism more succinctly. "As I went out," he said, "David told me he was a certainty. You can't go with much more confidence than that."
If jumping 30 daunting fences in four and a half miles with the opportunity for mayhem at every turn can be considered easy, Comply Or Die's performance was. Certainly, it was straightforward, and wholly professional (that word again) from both horse, doing what he was bred and trained to do with barely a glitch, and rider. Murphy bided his time with typical patience and from four out could be called the winner. "There were a lot of horses going well," he said, "which is great for the race to see so many with chances. You can never rest on your laurels in the National, and Paul Carberry is not someone you want to see just behind you, but I had a clear run all the way and when we reached the Elbow my lad just picked up again and went away."
There remain those who must try, try and try again. Irish millionaire JP McManus has not won in 27 attempts; the aforementioned Carberry having failed by four agonising lengths on his King Johns Castle. Back at Becher's, McCoy – who could have chosen the runner-up – was rueing Butler's Cabin's fall, his unlucky 13th attempt. Murphy had the pick of three, but Ruby Walsh was another rider whose multiple choice failed. He came in 13th on Hedgehunter, and could have ridden third-placed Snowy Morning. So many spins of the coin, and only one chance to get it right. No wonder victory is so prized, by great and small alike.
Riders' Reports Jockeys of the 15 finishers relate where it went right or wrong out on the track
*Timmy Murphy (Comply Or Die, 1st): "David [Pipe] has prepared him fabulously. He said going out he wouldn't get beat"
*Paul Carberry (King Johns Castle, 2nd): "He winged the last and I thought I was going to pick Timmy [Murphy] up at the Elbow. The whole way up the straight I thought I was going to get there."
*David Casey (Snowy Morning, 3rd): "I just wish I had held on to him a bit longer, but he gave me a super ride. When Hedgehunter won I'd schooled him round for Ruby [Walsh] the year before, and the same might just happen again."
*Barry Geraghty (Slim Pickings, 4th): "He ran a blinder, I had a great spin off him and I just said to the lads it is the best craic you'll have all year. He's only nine so hopefully he'll be back next year."
*Denis O'Regan (Bewleys Berry, 5th): "A brilliant run. He probably didn't get home, but he's run to his mark."
*Jason Maguire (Cloudy Lane, 6th): "Turning in, I thought if I could tag on to the winning bunch that he would pick up, but the trip has taken a bit of the quickness out of him and he just kept going one pace to the line."
*Robbie Power (Nadover, 7th): "He was deadly. He gave me a serious spin. He'll not be 150-1 next year."
*Paddy Flood (Baily Breeze, 8th): "Fantastic. He jumped well and travelled well."
*Davy Russell (Chelsea Harbour, 9th): "A savage spin. He did jump a bit left, but he's game. Perhaps I made too much use of him."
*Aidan Coleman (Mon Mome, 10th): "He was going well but Tony McCoy's horse fell in front of us at Becher's second time and half fell in front of my horse and that took him out of the race."
*Tom Doyle (Hi Cloy, 11th): "I had a chance jumping Becher's second time but he didn't get home from the second-last."
*Nick Scholfield (Cornish Sett, 12th): "He gave me a serious spin. He was starting to get into it, but was flat out and for me to finish was like winning it."
*Ruby Walsh (Hedgehunter, 13th): "He was grand but he just wasn't good enough."
*Brian Harding (Idle Talk, 14th): "I was getting excited at Becher's second time, but he fell in a heap."
*Tom Malone (Milan Deux Mille, 15th and last): "I had a fantastic ride out in front. He's such an exuberant horse."