The day Lely was in the pink

The Grand National bears gifts for a Greek devotee who just couldn't keep a straight face
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The Independent Online
BOX No 3 in the Queen Mother Stand at Aintree was totally silent. Sir Peter Lely was leading the Grand National halfway round the second circuit, and outside the box the crowd were cheering and shouting their favourites on. But Stef Stefanou and his family held their breath. Sir Peter Lely was their horse.

The field came to Becher's, and Stef could stand it no longer: "How many times do you have to bloody jump Becher's?" he demanded. "That's it," Micky Hammond, the horse's trainer assured him. Stef whooped: "Goodbye Becher's!" And everyone in the little box joined in the noise, turning from the TV in the corner to crowd on the balcony as the horses swung into the straight.

"Come on Peter, come on baby!" The horse had dropped away to fifth place as Rough Quest and Encore Un Peu took up the running, but Chris Bonner, the jockey, drove him on, looking for a place. The crowd on the balcony raised the noise level still higher, yelling on as the winner passed the line and Bonner drove away at Sir Peter Lely. Fourth! Stef hugged everyone in sight, and, led by Hammond, the "connections" of Sir Peter made a beeline for the winners' enclosure.

It was everything that Stef had dreamed of. All day long, the smartly turned out middle-aged gentlemen of Greek extraction had said: "All I want is a place. I do not want him to win, that is too much. But to get a place - that would be wonderful."

The Stefanous were not Sir Peter Lely's only supporters. He is a company horse, the property of John Doyle Construction, a building and civil engineering group of which Stef is chairman. Stef was worried: he had told all the group's employees and clients to back the National runner each way - a place would do wonders for morale.

Stef is a well-connected man. Looking at the form for the first race on the card, he could not pick a winner, so he grabbed his mobile phone and called the trainer Martin Pipe's mobile phone. Assured that Pipe's runner was in form, Stef promptly backed it - and Pipe himself was in Stef's box to watch it run.

Stef insisted that the National was "just another race" on the way down to the parade ring, but he couldn't keep a straight face. As he entered the arena to watch Sir Peter Lely walking around, he told the truth. "I used to think this experience was just for kings and queens," he said. "But now it is happening to me."

Waiting for Stef in the parade ring were Micky Hammond, Jed O'Keefe, his travelling head lad, Chris Bonner, and the horse himself, gleaming with health and prancing on his toes. Bonner revealed his plan for the race. "I'll try to jump off and keep him out of trouble at the first fence." Was he nervous? "I'll be all right once I'm on the horse."

Sir Peter and the other Hammond horses had driven down early in the morning from their yard in Middleham, in North Yorkshire. The National runner had travelled well, according to O'Keefe, who was in charge of unloading him and settling him into his temporary stable at the course. "He knows what's going on," O'Keefe said. "He doesn't get excited."

Unlike his supporters. "When he took the lead six fences out from the finish," Stef recalled, "I thought, these things don't happen to us." But there he was after the race, in the winners' enclosure at Aintree, patting his horse's heaving flanks.

Sir Peter Lely was not unmarked by the National: bright red blood from a cut on his leg formed a pool on the white-washed floor of the enclosure. But he had placed in the Grand National, and won a place for ever in his supporters' hearts.

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