Second, seven lengths behind and leading a gaggle of chasers on a vain pursuit up the finishing straight, was the 1992 winner, Party Politics, ridden by Mark Dwyer, with 100-1 shot Over the Deel in third, six lengths further back. The fancied mare Dubacilla, second in this year's Gold Cup, finished fourth. Master Oats, the strong 5-1 favourite, failed to follow up his Cheltenham triumph and finished a fading seventh after looking strong and ominously aloof from the hurly-burly through the middle part of the race.
For Mrs Pitman, the victory represented some compensation for Garrison Savannah's narrow defeat by Seagram in 1991, and for Esha Ness's annulled victory in the infamous void race two years ago. Already the only woman to have trained a National winner, with Corbiere in 1983, she has now confirmed her mastery of the world's toughest steeplechase.
Royal Athlete, a 12-year-old chestnut gelding, turned out to be a more unlikely winner than he looked as his jockey eased him past the finishing post.
"I bought him with a leg problem," said Gary Johnson, co-owner with his brother Libby. "I'm not saying how much he cost, but it was peanuts. When I told my brother he said, `Good God, they usually get leg problems after we've bought them, not before'. The horse was written off by many people. They said he can't jump, he can't stay, he doesn't like the firm. But today he spoke for himself."
The Johnsons, garage proprietors near Lambourn, met Mrs Pitman when she rang their business to enquire about buying a van. She ended up with Royal Athlete in her stables. "I told them they were mad to run him in the National," she said. "He's been a nightmare to train. If there's a horse in the yard with a problem, nine out of 10 times it's been him. But Jason gave him the most wonderful ride today."
Titley did not know until Monday that he was to ride the horse in yesterday's race, and sat on him for the first time on Wednesday morning. "What a tremendous ride he gave me," he said. "Terrific. Of course I was nervous, but once we'd started I didn't think about it. I just took each fence as it came." Mrs Pitman's son, Mark, had walked the course with the jockey before the race, telling him to handle Royal Athlete gently. "You've got to hold this horse like a piece of cotton," he said. "Just the slightest pressure and he jumps." Titley confirmed it: "He jumped so well that it was unreal. He went over Becher's the first time on the inside and barely nodded."
A fine spring day with the lightest of breezes meant that Chanel suits and court shoes outnumbered the quilted jackets and green wellies in the parade ring, where the steeplechasers' hooves left only the slightest impression on the firm, well-grassed turf.
A crowd of about 60,000 maintained the meeting's exceptional attendances, although the good going reduced the number of runners to 35, the smallest Grand National field since 1980.
Yesterday, conditions were just about perfect. Titley kept Royal Athlete back in the early stages while most eyes were watching the progress of Master Oats, bidding to become the first horse since Golden Miller in 1934 to win the Gold Cup and the National in the same season. Norman Williamson held Master Oats wide to the outside for the first circuit and a half, letting the horse settle into a rhythm that would give him confidence in his carefully reconstructed jumping technique.
Riverside Boy was an early leader, overtaken by Do Be Brief, another of Mrs Pitman's six representatives, as the field approached The Chair at the end of the first circuit. Crystal Spirit, Garrison Savannah, Royal Athlete, Into the Red, Camelot Knight and Topsham Bay were also in evidence, but the race began to take its real shape only as the survivors approached Becher's Brook for the second time.
Master Oats, still on the outside, jumped the big obstacle neck-and-neck with Royal Athlete, who looked cool and comfortable as they galloped easily up to the Canal Turn, holding formation despite the distraction of loose horses. Here, Richard Dunwoody pulled up last year's winner Miinnehoma, later explaining to the stewards that his mount had failed to appreciate the firm footing.
At Valentine's, Royal Athlete and Master Oats were four lengths clear. But now the favourite began to labour, while Titley found his mount willing to cruise the last five fences. "Coming to the last he looked as though he might fiddle it a bit," Titley said, "but once he was over I didn't look round. I could hear Party Politics, but I told myself I wasn't going to be caught." Mark Dwyer pushed Party Politics to the head of the pursuers, but even as he charged through the elbow his chance had gone. "Royal Athlete found a gear and my fellow didn't," he said.
Esha Ness fell at the 12th, but Garrison Savannah finished ninth of the 15 finishers to give Mrs Pitman further pleasure on a day of warm satisfactions.
1. ROYAL ATHLETE J F Titley 40-1
2. Party Politics M Dwyer 16-1
3. Over The Deel Mr C Bonner 100-1
4. Dubacilla D Gallagher 9-1
5-1 fav Master Oats. 35 ran. 7, 6. (Mrs J Pitman). Tote: £83.70; £17.80, £4.00, £49.90, £2.20. DF: £743.30. Trio: £26,437.70. CSF: £541.31. Tricast: £41,023.25.Reuse content