What can nine and a half minutes do for your life? Dazed by elation, Liam Treadwell finally made it back into the changing rooms at Aintree on Saturday, and just about the first man to seek him out was Tony McCoy. The champion jockey shook Treadwell's hand. "You jammy bugger," he said cheerfully.
Treadwell cannot have known whether to laugh or cry. McCoy is about to be crowned champion for the 14th time in 14 years, and rides more winners every three months than Treadwell has managed in his entire career. Yet his envy of the young man, following his 100-1 success on Mon Mome in the John Smith's Grand National, was as genuine as it was affectionate.
McCoy knew now that the odds against him ever satisfying his craving for a National winner had become still more desperate. He will be 35 next year, and has reached the stage where a National winner might even prompt talk of retirement. At 23, in contrast, Treadwell was having his first ride over the big fences, and would have regarded merely completing the course as precious consolidation of his status as a lad making quiet progress since becoming too heavy for the Flat.
McCoy had ridden the favourite, Butler's Cabin, into seventh. His was a characteristic gesture, but perhaps he sensed that others in the room could put his disappointment into due perspective. Butler's Cabin, after all, had himself needed oxygen to assist his recovery after the race. Davy Russell's mount, Hear The Echo, had proved beyond any such help when collapsing on the run-in.
Horses can have heart attacks in the most innocuous circumstances, but this seemed a graphic measure of a reckless ardour. Few in the game are better versed in the excruciating tests of their calling than Mouse Morris, and nobody beyond it could possibly introduce his conscience to a better grasp of the issues than his own. The trainer will have returned home to Co Tipperary, and looked at an empty stable – one, of all things, bearing the words Hear The Echo on its door. What possible reproach could make a man feel more grievously hollow?
Then there was Aidan Coleman, the young rival who had been given the choice between her two runners by Venetia Williams. He had rejected Mon Mome, in favour of Stan, and taken a horrid fall at the seventh. Groggily, he became aware that the stable's other horse had won. "Mixed emotions, I think it's fair to say," Williams said yesterday.
Treadwell had a few drinks with the other jockeys, and then headed back to Herefordshire to join the staff party. He sat in the pub, still wearing his silks, and the gap-toothed grin he had been so indecorously ordered to exhibit on television. He did not get to bed until after 3am, and was up by 7am to read all the papers. Then it was up to the yard, where Williams was greeting some 300 friends, patrons and countrymen with champagne and, having herself not got to bed until dawn, her own bleary smiles.
For all its outer layers of anguish, here the race found its annual kernel of joy. The River Wye glittered beneath the meadows and paddocks, peacocks strutted on the stable walls, and a pilot who knows the trainer saluted the party by performing victory rolls.
Mick Fitzgerald, whose career had been ended in the National last year, had also sought out Treadwell at Aintree. "Enjoy every moment," he counselled, remembering his own euphoria the day he won the race on Rough Quest. But initially the whole thing had been simply surreal. "There was a bit of an eerie silence coming up the run-in," Treadwell recalled. "I gave a wave to the crowd, after crossing the line, and there were a lot of blank faces."
It was a different story back at the yard. "Shirley, Martin and Sarah in my office were on the phone to all the owners and friends we could think of seconds after Mon Mome passed the post, to tell them about the party," Williams said. "Shirley went into the village and was knocking on the doors of people who didn't even know the Grand National was on, to tell them to come. It is great to thank the locals for the patience they show us."
And that, of course, is precisely why this most national of its institutions remains so cherished by the sport, whatever challenges it also raises. If for one day only, Aintree dependably stimulates the curiosity of the layman. It will not always win his approval, but even a result like this – being apparently unaccountable to the cognoscenti, and rewarding only the bookmakers – enriches the ageless tapestry. As the fifth 100-1 winner, Mon Mome's name stands alongside some of the most resonant in Turf history: Foinavon and Tipperary Tim, for instance, both beneficiaries of dramatic pile-ups, or Caughoo, who bounded out of the fog so exuberantly in 1947 that his jockey was even accused of discreetly missing out part of the course.
Mon Mome finished on Saturday with no less gusto. He won with his ears pricked, hurtling clear of last year's winner, much the most vivid and significant sample yet of the astonishing powers of endurance with which Williams seems able to fortify her horses.
The answer was there yesterday, perhaps, over the archway to the old courtyard stable. On a plinth is engraved the legend: "Never Say Die." Williams, notoriously, finished her only National as a jockey on a stretcher, and was nearly killed on her only subsequent ride, at Worcester soon afterwards. Never Say Die – it is a mortal ambition, of course, as anyone connected with Hear The Echo will know. But it is one that might yet spur McCoy, say, or Coleman, to their most immortal day.