Unfancied outsider Auroras Encore romped to victory in the Grand National yesterday. Defying bookies odds of 66-1, the horse cruised home in the marathon steeplechase cheered on by a 70,000 sell-out crowd at Liverpool's Aintree course. Welsh-trained Cappa Bleu finished second, ahead of Teaforthree in third. High pre-race hopes that the race might produce its first winning female jockey were dashed when Kate Walsh's mount Seabass finished 13th.
Winning trainer Sue Smith, the third woman to triumph in the race, said afterwards: "He's a great horse. We can ride him anywhere, anyhow." The Yorkshire trainer is married to the former champion show jumper Harvey Smith. Winning jockey Ryan Mania, making his debut in the race, said: "He loved every second of it, just class. He gave me a dream ride, he's brilliant." The jockey admitted: "I had the choice of two horses to ride, I wasn't sure which one to go for."
No horses or riders were injured in the race, for the first time since 2010. Animal rights campaigners People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) said: "No horses died today, but two this week is two too many."
Controversy has surrounded the safety of the Aintree meeting following growing numbers of horses being killed racing there. The organisers say they have made changes to fences and the start to reduce risks. Critics claim this has rendered the Grand National, dubbed the world's greatest steeplechase, a pale imitation of the original race, and that it can no longer be considered the world's toughest horse race. That distinction now belongs to the Velka Pardubicka, run in the Czech Republic.
One man who knows is Josef Vana, the most successful jockey in the race, who has won it eight times. He insists both races are equally tough. "Becher's Brook and the Chair are very tough fences but the other fences are pretty much similar to each other. Still, considering the pace, it is a tough race. The Velka Pardubicka is not just a steeplechase but also cross-country. There are different surfaces, ploughed fields, grass, the fences are cross-country... so the challenge is very different."
The Velka, established in 1856, has seen protests from animal welfare campaigners. "Brigitte Bardot organised protests in Pardubice many years ago," said Vana, who insists neither race is dangerous. "The Velka and the National are not cemeteries for horses... [It's a fact that] from time to time something happens in every sport."
Former National winner Liam Treadwell has competed in both races. After winning at Aintree in 2009 he rode in last year's Velka, finishing eighth. "The Velka is a real contrast to the National as there are so many more turns and the water jumps are like nothing I've seen – they're just gaping holes in the ground. It's also difficult to find your way round as it's such a complicated course."
At 60, Vana still hopes to race in the Grand National. "Ever since I started to race, a time when English jockeys started to come to Czechoslovakia and competing in the Velka, I've wanted to ride in the National. I have been to Aintree a couple of times. I just haven't had the chance to be there with a horse, yet."