In any risk sport, the twin imposters ride along together and yesterday's 165th Grand National was, sadly and grimly, not an exception. In the winner's circle, there was the triumph of a first victory in the world's most famous steeplechase for the champion trainer Paul Nicholls as 33-1 shot Neptune Collonges ended his run of 52 losers. But for his colleague, Jonjo O'Neill, his charge Sunnyhillboy's agonising nose defeat was compounded by a much worse loss. The Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Synchronised was one of two horses killed in a contest that produced drama from before the first stride to the very last.
Two races before the National, Ruby Walsh was so badly shaken by a fall from Nicholls-trained hurdler Zarkandar that he had cry off his big-race ride on much-fancied On His Own. Then poor Synchronised unseated Tony McCoy as he jinked on the warm-up canter before the start and ran calmly loose on the course before being caught by a photographer and reunited with his rider. With the start delayed by his antics those waiting, both horses and riders, became increasingly on edge and twice the tapes were charged.
Becher's Brook was one of the obstacles modified in the wake of last year's two deaths but it still played its part in this year's tapestry.
First time round Synchronised came down, got up and five fences later fell riderless, sustaining a hind leg injury that proved fatal. On the second circuit According To Pete, travelling just behind the leading pack, was brought down by the fall of On His Own and he, too, broke a leg.
By then the race had developed towards its thrilling denouement of the closes finish in the race's history. Planet Of Sound and the two 8-1 joint-favourites Shakalakaboomboom and Seabass had blazed a trail up front, each horse jumping with flair and flamboyance. But there, quietly stalking, were the veteran grey Neptune Collonges, ridden by Daryl Jacob, and 16-1 shot Sunnyhillboy, with Richie McLernon in the saddle.
Seabass, given a wonderful ride by Katie Walsh, led over the last, but up the daunting 494-yard run from the last his suspect stamina ebbed as that of the dourest gallopers kicked in. At the elbow, just 10 strides out, two strides out, Sunnyhillboy was going to give O'Neill and owner JP McManus their second National in three years, after Don't Push it. But in the last half-stride Jacob put the grey's muzzle in front. Seabass, five length behind, provided the best-ever finish for a woman rider. Cappa Bleu (16-1) came in fourth, in front of In Compliance and last year's winner Ballabriggs. Fifteen of the 40 starters completed the course.
It was a first success at the fifth attempt for 28-year-old Jacob, so often the understudy to Ruby Walsh on Nicholls' horses.
"I just kept my head down and the horse kept grinding out the whole way to the line," said the man from Donegal. "I wasn't sure where the winning line was but I knew that inch by inch I was starting to grind the other horse down."
The 11-year-old, known as Nipper at home, was one of the class acts in in the race; in his youth he had twice been placed in Cheltenham Gold Cups and has now bowed out in glory; he will not be asked to race again.
"He was very, very good," added Jacob. "He kept me out of trouble the whole way round. I was going in the same gear from start to finish; he knew exactly what pace he was going and I trusted him with it. I don't think he missed a beat the whole way round and he loved the whole thing.
"I was comfortable enough that he would run a big race because he has that touch of class. And you can never forget class."
Neptune Collonges, only the third grey to win a National and the first since Nicolaus Silver in 1961, was a first runner in the race for his owner John Hales, a businessman who is as much a supporter of top-level show jumping as racing.
But as for Nicholls, if he does not have a picture of Robert The Bruce's spider in is office, he should have. He sent out his first National runner, sixth-placed Just So, 20 years ago and his nearest shot before yesterday's triumph was Royal Auclair's very distant second to Hedgehunter in 1995.
"This is not a race we've had the best of luck in," he said with masterly understatement. "But this is probably the best horse we've run in it in terms of pure class. The verdict could have gone either way, but ours was the one who was finishing and the other horse was stopping.
"Ruby could have ridden him, but he felt he was just that bit old. But I'm absolutely chuffed for Daryl, he went the brave man's route and little short cuts like that make – and this time clearly made – all the difference."
Despite his great rival Nicky Henderson's three good winners earlier on the card, the National's £547,267 first prize gave Nicholls a seventh successive trainer's championship at a stroke. "That's great," he added, "but this is the race that everyone knows and watches. This is the one we really wanted."