Grand National-winning jockey Ryan Mania finally got to toast his success last night exactly one week after romping home in the world's most famous steeplechase on the 66-1 outsider Auroras Encore.
Still feeling the effects of injuries sustained in a heavy fall at Hexham the day after his Aintree victory, Mania celebrated with teams at the Melrose Sevens rugby tournament in his native Scotland yesterday. He is now trying to regain fitness in time to partner the same horse in Saturday's Scottish National.
"The Sevens are a big deal," he said on the eve of the event. "There'll be teams from all over the world there and I'll be presenting the winning team with the trophy. There's a party on afterwards, so it will be good to finally catch up with a few friends."
Describing himself as "still buzzing, but still sore", Mania said his nasty tumble following the biggest win of his life left him initially concerned whether he would walk again. His immediate thought was of fellow jockey JT McNamara, paralysed after a fall last month at the Cheltenham Festival.
"There was a split second when I thought I might be in trouble, because I'd lost some feeling," he said. "But once I got it all back I realised it wasn't as serious as I first thought."
Having been strapped to a spinal board and airlifted to hospital in Newcastle, Mania later tweeted he was "grand", and returned home after a two-night stay at the Royal Victoria Infirmary.
The immense high and sudden low was emblematic of the 24-year-old's career. Before his National triumph, dark days were endured. "It had gone really wrong," Mania said as he explained why he temporarily walked away from the sport in 2011. Peter Monteith, the Scottish trainer with whom he started out, killed himself that year. He joined Howard Johnson's yard, but more bad news followed as the three-time World Hurdle-winning trainer was given a four-year ban by the British Horseracing Authority in the summer of 2011 for issues relating to horse welfare.
"I thought, 'What on earth am I going to do? Who am I going to ride for?' My agent didn't know, so I looked elsewhere for work."
Mania (as in Tania, not rainier), from Galashiels, took a job as a whipper-in for a local hunt. "As soon as I found out that Howard had been banned, I phoned them up. Anything to get away and try and find what I wanted to do, if it really was for me, because it was going to be a struggle to stay in racing and I just wasn't sure it was worth it."
He kept one eye on the races during his sabbatical, especially on the mounts he would have ridden. "I realised I still loved racing and needed to go back," he said.
Whether National Hunt is glamorous is probably debatable. Jump jockeys get £157.72 per race, plus around 8 per cent of first-place prize money for a win and 4 per cent for a place. Competition for rides is fierce and if meetings are abandoned, as they often are in Scotland during the winter, jockeys do not get paid.
Mania's career strike-rate is 122 wins out of 1,322 rides – a win average of just over 9 per cent. Auroras Encore's victory earned him more than £50,000.
National Hunt is a hard sport for hard men, epitomised by the dozens of broken bones, fractures and operations endured in a typical jockey's career. Mania, like all jockeys, said the perils "never bother me". He added: "It's part of the job and you learn to expect to get hurt. If you think to yourself that you'll get hurt, then there's no point in riding, as you wouldn't take the risks."
In the build-up to the big race, Mania woke up in Galashiels and set off early for Aintree with his dad, Kevin, driving. "We didn't discuss tactics or anything, I felt like we were just going down for the experience, it being my first ride in the National. I fell asleep at one point."
He placed himself at the line-up between Barry Geraghty and Ruby Walsh, both previous National winners. By the time the debutant reached Becher's Brook second time round, he fancied his chances of getting placed on Auroras Encore.
"He winged the last fence, but I didn't dare look back after the Elbow for fear of falling off, and just kept pushing to the line." Auroras Encore stormed up the famous run-in to win by nine lengths.
The following moments were "absolutely mental", but Mania left Aintree soon afterwards to return to Galashiels, as his local side had just won a sevens tournament and Mania was keen to be there. He was announced to the crowd and followed the team on to the pitch, where he was soon swamped by fans. "I couldn't believe how much it meant to everybody," he said. But rides at Hexham awaited the next day, and he turned in early.
Nobody had given Auroras Encore a hope at Aintree. Expert pundits were all looking elsewhere as money poured in for Seabass. One national paper described Auroras Encore as a, "poor jumper and odds-on not to finish the race". The fact that the horse finished second in the Scottish National was ignored. "I don't pay attention to the papers," Mania said. "I go into a race with the attitude that hopefully I'll win. I never think, 'This has got no chance'."
Mania credits his return to the sport to Sue and Harvey Smith, the husband-and-wife team who train Auroras Encore at their Bingley yard. "I couldn't have done it without them. It's great to have such good people behind you."
Auroras Encore will be 11lb worse off in Saturday's Scottish National than he was when runner-up at Ayr in 2012. "I'm doing everything I can to be back on him," said Mania. And if the horse wins, he will become the first since Red Rum in 1974 to win both Nationals in the same season.