Sue Smith became only the third female in history to train the winner of the John Smith's Grand National as 66-1 outsider Auroras Encore claimed the Aintree spectacular.
Back in 1971, Harvey Smith earned fame of sorts after winning a Derby. Yesterday, with those Hickstead days as a top-flight showjumper only a memory, he became a legend in of another sport as rank outsider Auroras Encore, trained at his stables high on the Yorkshire Moors, took the 166 Grand National. This time, the victory salute was more mellow, just a wave and a slap of his flat cap as Ryan Mania, having his first ride in the race, brought the 11-year-old gelding home by nine lengths.
But Smith, 74, speaks his mind as trenchantly now as he did when he upset showjumping’s hierarchy 42 years ago. The build-up to yesterday’s race had been accompanied by a frisson of dread in the wake of last year’s high-profile equine fatalities, but in the event proved no more than a thrilling, straightforward spectacle, unmarred by injury or death. “These doubters who try to badmouth the National are talking just rubbish,” he said. “This is what horses do, it’s what they’re bred to do, risks and all, and I wish people understood that.
“Here at Aintree they’ve worked so hard to make it a safe course. They’ve done a first-class job and that’s been proved today. And just look at the crowd here, they absolutely love it. The race will go on for ever.”
Smith’s wife Sue, 65, holds the licence at their operation, at Craiglands Farm near Bingley, but it is very much a team effort; she in charge of the day-to-day training and entries and he concerned with feeding, management and care of the gallops; he personally laid down more than two miles of all-weather exercise tracks with a surface bound by pig hair. “This is all thanks to him,” said Sue, “he makes everyone work hard. He’s a hard man but it’s what he’s always done and it’s the answer to this job.”
One of Auroras Encore’s best previous performances came in defeat, when he was touched off in last year’s Scottish National nearly a year ago but though he had shown little since, he had been running on soft winter ground he hates and yesterday’s quicker surface made all the difference.
For Mania, the result was triumphant vindication of his faith in himself. The 23-year-old from Galashiels first sat on a Shetland pony at the age of three, but after his career as a jockey stuttered two years ago he left the sport to work as whipper-in or the Fife Hunt for six months. He was lured back by the job with the Smiths. “I enjoyed the hunting,” he said, “but it wasn’t the real thing.”
Mania called on his horseman’s, as well as his jockey’s, experience as he enjoyed an almost faultless round. “After he made a couple of small mistakes early on he learned to back off the fences,” he said. “I remembered not to kick on too soon and got a bit of a blow into him after the second Bechers. By then I was six or seventh, and had a bit of daylight and a clear run.”
There was a roar of approval from the grandstands as the entire field cleared Bechers safely and uniquely, the first exits from the race did not come until the eighth obstacle, the Canal Turn, where Big Fella Thanks, Treacle and The Rainbow Hunter lost their riders. Of the fancied horses, Colbert Station lost Tony McCoy at the Chair and On His Own, beginning to fade, fell at Valentines.
Coming back into sight of the stands, Teaforthree and the 2011 runner-up Oscar Time led a bunch that included the favourite Seabass, travelling strongly, and Auroras Encore. “At the second-last I realised I was probably going to be placed,” said Mania, “then the two in front started to shorten. I couldn’t believe it; I just gave my boy a shove and he quickened away past them. And from there I didn’t dare look round.
Cappa Bleu (12-1), last year’s fourth, finished strongly to snatch second from gallant Teaforthree (10-1), who had been in the first three from the start. Oscar Time kept going for fourth, in front of Rare Bob and Swing Bill. Seabass faded to 13 with Any Currency last of the 17 finishers.
At 66-1, Auroras Encore was provided a result described by bookmakers as “the best in living memory”, and a fairytale for his businessman owners Douglas Pryde and Jim Beaumont, who used to work as a bell boy in the Liverpool Adelphi Hotel. They acquired the gelding just before Christmas to have the thrill of a National runner.
For Smith, it was the culmination of a lifetime with horses. “They’ve given me a good life,” he said. “The showjumping was great but I like to look forward and I hope there’s more to come in this game. We started messing around with racehorses about 20 years ago and got sucked into it. And horses keep you young.”
Yesterday’s race turned out to be an old-fashioned National: a thrills, some spills, a lightweight winner at a lottery-number price. But best of all, all 40 runners were last night safe back in their stables.