As if the Aintree gods could ever permit one young man to redeem so many of their most spiteful curses with impunity. Yesterday morning, Ryan Mania posed for photographs alongside the horse who had not just exalted him from obscurity, but turned back a tide of misfortune – and misapprehension – on behalf of an entire sport.
Behind them, snow lingered upon the high country, in thin slicks across the moor and creamy swells under the walls. Otherwise the morning matched the sudden thaw upon the Turf itself: warm and hazy, full of the contrition of a tardy spring. Four hours later, the Scotsman was being airlifted to hospital.
Mania, having won the John Smith’s Grand National at the first attempt on Auroras Encore (right), was brought down to earth in the most terrifyingly literal fashion in a hurdle race at Hexham. Racing was delayed by 25 minutes as he was carefully loaded aboard an air ambulance and taken to a Newcastle hospital. In the meantime, a silent dread revisited all who had witnessed a similar crisis at Cheltenham last month, when John Thomas McNamara broke his neck. The Irishman, who had been in the evening of his own career, remains paralysed in a spinal unit.
Happily, the immediate prognosis for Mania was far more optimistic. Thought to have been kicked between the shoulder blades, the 23-year-old was reported to be moving his limbs and loquacious. He later tweeted: “Thanks so much for all the messages. I’m grand. Staying in hospital to get another scan tomorrow then should be home. #highsandlows.” His agent, Bruce Jeffrey, confirmed Mania will have have a precautionary MRI scan today and will then hopefully be released.
In the morning, Mania had still seemed dazed by his good fortune. After the National, he had driven home to Galashiels. After a restless night, his mind racing, he set off at 5.30am to call in at the Yorkshire stables of Sue and Harvey Smith.
The former showjumping champion had come back from the races one day and told his wife: “I’ve seen a real lad ride today.” Mania had only just resumed his vocation, having become so discouraged that he had quit to become whipper-in with the Fife Hunt. How could either man – the hardened old showjumping champion, or the protégé determined to seize his second chance – ever imagine that they might so soon meet the most famous challenge in steeplechasing?
But what they both knew, even as they basked in the moment, was that the world beyond was already moving on to the next show in town. To proceed to Hexham, even after an hour’s sleep, was an important statement. What Harvey liked about the lad, after all, apart from his riding, was his graft. Besides, only one deceived by an evanescent glory would have cried off Hexham. And racing can reserve grotesque punishment for such hubris. But nor can you ever guarantee its benedictions. By the end of the afternoon the young rider was subject of clinical statements from Great North Air Ambulance. “Mr Mania has received neck and back injuries,” a spokesman told the BBC. “He came off at high speed and may have been hit by another horse while he was on the ground. He has been given extensive painkillers and is in a stable condition.”
So Aintree’s redemption proved no less accountable than the disasters that had conspired so malignly against it. Aside from yesterday’s lurid sequel, the threads came in many different shades. There was Auroras Encore himself, for instance, his exultant fulfilment in the controversial fences so unsuspected that he was sent off at odds of 66-1. But it was through two septuagenarians who had greeted Mania to the winner’s enclosure that the National defended itself most faithfully.
One had become captivated by its egalitarian, urban glamour as a 14-year-old bellboy in the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool. Jim Beaumont remembers watching National winners being led up the steps of the hotel. Now he has owned one himself, in partnership with two friends, albeit one instead paraded on Bingley Moor – fiefdom of a horseman so dismayed by the timid sensibilities of the 21st century that his casting on Saturday might have been ordained by Ginger McCain himself.
The late trainer of Red Rum would not, perhaps, have been the most diplomatic of spokesmen for a sport at such pains, following the traumas of the previous two years, to strike an acceptable balance over the hazards that define Aintree. Harvey cheerfully congratulated the organisers on the modifications that resulted in just two fallers on Saturday, with all 40 runners finishing sound. Several did discard their jockeys, at various stages, but the whole field sailed over Becher’s Brook on the first circuit, as did all those still going next time round. “It was speed that stopped them, not the fences,” Smith said. “A lot were pulled up because they went off fast and couldn’t get home. The people at Aintree have done a fantastic job – even the RSPCA man. They’ve got together and made the job as safe as they can. Full marks to them. In life there’s freak accidents, always will be. You can’t listen to a load of wimps. They’d stop everything. And the public love this race. It will go on for ever.”
Smith has adored the National all his life. As a boy, he broke his arm in a fall from his bike. When he came round from the anaesthetic he was given a sick-basin, which he promptly put on his head. “I just won Grand National,” he announced to the nurse.
“I haven’t been right since,” he grins now. Then there was the time, in his showjumping pomp, that he agreed to ride over the National fences to promote television coverage. “I came down at Becher’s,” he said. “But they were big then, not soft and pussyfoot like now. And the value of my neck? The horse they gave me to ride, they sold him at Doncaster Sales the next week for 250 quid.”
Now he proudly surveyed the horse he had found at the sales, unbroken, for less than 10 grand: Yorkshire’s first National winner in 53 years. He and Sue had run into Gerry Scott, Merryman’s jockey, at Aintree on Saturday and he had implored them to end the drought.
Sue Smith is the third woman to train a National winner, and few trainers can ever have conquered such adverse conditions in the weeks before the race. “It’s been like Siberia up here this winter,” she said. “There have been so many mornings this winter when the frost was so bad we couldn’t even walk them down the drive; it was desperate.”
Only hours later, the same word obtained chilling new pertinence. Once again the professional community found itself asking who might presume to educate it in the hazards of their calling – these who dig through snow to feed horses before daybreak, these who literally risk their necks daily? The dark days can never be forgotten, only consoled. The sun may have shone, but that snow still lay upon the moor like shrouds explaining the sorrow of the curlew above.
“Nobody wants horses on the floor,” Sue stressed. “Nobody. I’d say this one [Auroras Encore] is feeling quite elated with himself. He’s only 16 hands, but from day one he was a racehorse. And so long as they stay sound in wind and limb, they will stay a racehorse until the day they retire. I must admit I was apprehensive yesterday.” She paused, as if touched by prescience. “But the jockey wasn’t,” she said firmly.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Midnight Feast (4.50 Kempton) Back in business off a diminished rating on his return over course and distance, having lost his way last term, and form has stood up nicely.
Peace Seeker (3.10 Wolverhampton) Looked to have returned in good form when making his comeback over a shorter trip, getting behind before closing up nicely late on.
Ones to watch
Parish Hall (Jim Bolger) promised to repay his trainer’s patience at the top level when making an impressive return at the Curragh yesterday.
Where the money's going
Ruler Of The World, a half-brother to Duke Of Marmalade, is as low as 14-1 for the Investec Derby after his striking debut on the same card.