Tony McCoy has become well used to being in the spotlight, but this Saturday afternoon will be something else. It’s Grand National Day, the one day of the year when everyone is tuned into jumps racing, and once the sport’s most familiar figure announced his imminent retirement the spotlight was destined to shine in one direction this weekend, straight into the face of the multiple champion jockey.
That face now looks out from posters all over the racecourse and has even been projected on to the Royal Liver Building on Liverpool’s waterfront. It is estimated that three million people will invest a total of £30m on Shutthefrontdoor, McCoy’s final Grand National mount and last ride ever if he happens to win and makes good on his pledge to quit the game that has obsessed him for so long on the spot.
Even the most casual acquaintances of the sport know that this is anything but a given; the Grand National is the one race above all others where nothing is guaranteed. But McCoy is the man every once-a-year punter knows and trusts.
For McCoy himself, nothing less than victory will do, not just because it is his farewell National ride and he wants to go out on a high, but because, as always, he simply needs to win. Desperately. There will be no contented smile if he is beaten, however well he has ridden and however loud the cheers of appreciation. He doesn’t do a plucky loser.
Saturday, though, is not just about McCoy. There are other huge stories in the making and none huger than Nina Carberry, who rides First Lieutenant for veteran Irish trainer Mouse Morris.
A win for Carberry would, in the wider scheme of things, be far more meaningful than a sweet swansong for McCoy, a first Grand National triumph in the saddle for a woman at long last, 38 years after they were first allowed to mix it with the men.
First Lieutenant is a classy chaser, who seems to have turned a little sour, the type often rejuvenated by the Aintree experience, and may respond if Carberry is able to give him the same expertly executed ride she gave On The Fringe when winning Thursday’s Fox Hunters’ Chase over the National fences.
If this were a normal handicap, at a normal track, Rocky Creek would be favourite following a commanding Kempton win in February delivered after the National weights were released. That makes him a handicap standout, while his trainer, Paul Nicholls, could hardly have his team in better form.
He has, however, tried and failed in the National before, finishing a tired fifth last year, and a recent trend suggests that previous experience in the race is not anything like as important as it was. The horse that seems to fit the bill best these days is mature, but without any National baggage, physical or mental.
Experience of the other Nationals often counts as much, which brings the likes of Al Co, the winner of last year’s Scottish version, into the equation.
The Grand National has changed much since the aptly named Lottery won the inaugural running in 1839. But though the fences are less daunting, the ground is safer and the qualification criteria for horse and rider more stringent, the one thing that remains the same is the requirement of luck. Not necessarily the sort that enabled Foinavon to survive the famous pile-up in 1967, but small bits of fortune, such as Pineau De Re enjoyed in last year’s race when surviving the sort of everyday jumping error halfway round that could just as easily have put him on the floor.
As it was, he provided his trainer, Richard Newland, with a first National winner from his first runner in the contest. Compare that fortune with, say, top jockeys Richard Johnson and Tom Scudamore, who have not managed a winner between them in 31 attempts.
Johnson, who rides Balthazar King, last year’s runner-up, and Scudamore, aboard a back-to-form Soll, seventh in 2013, are both optimistic their luck will change.
Maybe they need to search out their weighing-room colleague Paul Moloney, who again rides last year’s fourth Alvarado and has finished in the first four in every one of the last six runnings, and give his arm a rub.
Leighton Aspell, though enjoying the thrill of a lifetime on Pineau De Re 12 months ago, switches allegiance to the classy Many Clouds. It is probably the right choice. History is very much against the older horse doing it again.
But the last word should be about McCoy and Shutthefrontdoor. Serious punters and bookmakers insist the horse is bad value for money, but they are perhaps overplaying the issue. Even without McCoy in the saddle, Shutthefrontdoor has the profile to be one for the shortlist, the winner of an Irish Grand National and laid out for this race since winning at Carlisle in the autumn. He would be one of the favourites anyway.
The bookies will lay Shutthefrontdoor and McCoy until the cows come home, but they have come catastrophically unstuck before with Frankie Dettori’s “Magnificent Seven” in 1996.Though Shutthefrontdoor will not be the sort of price that has the champagne corks popping, there will still be countless glasses around the country raised and clinked in gratitude if A P McCoy can write his own perfect ending to his quite extraordinary epic.Reuse content