The Grand National: An amateur in the grand tradition

Stan Hey talks to Chris Bonner, a jockey Aintree has failed to bring to his knees
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IF CHRIS BONNER was a horse he would be an each-way certainty for next Saturday's Martell Grand National. For the 24-year-old amateur jockey has form which reads, third, fourth, 14th in his three National runs so far. Indeed, in eight assorted rides over the daunting Aintree fences, Bonner has completed every time, a record which most professional jump jockeys would regard as near-miraculous.

"I've been very lucky," Bonner instantly confesses during a break from duties as assistant trainer to Mickey Hammond's yard at Middleham, Yorkshire. "I'm not sure I've got a secret to it, except that I think you have to ride Aintree from fence to fence. You just go along gradually and try not to start thinking too much. Then, if you're in a good position two or three fences out, you suddenly realise you might have a chance and you go for it!"

The bookmakers certainly didn't think much of Over The Deel's chances in the 1995 National, sending him off at odds of 100-1. "I didn't even know about the ride until a few days before," Bonner recalls. "So I didn't really have time to get nervous."

In the event, Bonner cleverly steered Howard Johnson's nine-year-old into third place behind Party Politics and the 40-1 winner, Royal Athlete. "It was an amazing experience," Bonner said, with enthusiasm bubbling into his voice. "The thing about Aintree is that there are crowds all the way round the course and the noise on the run-in is just astonishing, a real wall of sound. Over The Deel jumped really well and stayed on. It was a fantastic thrill for me."

By this stage, Bonner, who had learned his horsemanship in the traditional arenas of the hunting fields and point-to-point races, was already earning himself a reputation as one of the most promising amateur riders on the jumping circuit, with 35 winners in his first four seasons. That reputation was certainly enhanced in the 1996 National when he coaxed Mickey Hammond's Sir Peter Lely into fourth place, belying the horse's 33-1 price.

"He was a brilliant ride. In fact, if he'd had a better preparation, he might even have finished closer than he did, just a short head behind Jenny Pitman's Superior Finish. He got tired by the second last but sheer guts kept him going."

Last year, in the IRA-delayed race, Bonner "got round" on Pink Gin to maintain his record of clear rounds at the Liverpool course.

For an amateur to produce such creditable finishes in his first three National rides, was testament to Bonner's jockeyship, but the big race has regularly featured stirring deeds by riders from outside the professional sphere. Dick Saunders was 48 when he steered Grittar to victory in 1982, and Marcus Armytage set a record time when winning on Mr Frisk in 1990. Charlie Fenwick on Ben Nevis (1980) and the American Tommy Smith on Jay Trump (1965) were also successful "gentlemen riders".

But tighter regulations - amateurs must now have won 15 races to take part - have killed off the days when obscure Spanish noblemen and American playboys would ride for the sheer fun of it. The National is much more serious these days. The fact that Bonner would not be out of place in the professional ranks, certainly testifies to that, although he has already decided that his future lies more in training than in riding.

"I was tempted to turn pro a few years back," Bonner admits. "But I like being involved with the everyday business of a stable, riding work, planning the entries, meeting the owners. And I have ambitions to be a trainer in my own right some day, so just being a jockey wouldn't have satisfied me really."

Bonner is booked to ride Howard Johnson's Winter Belle on whom he finished sixth in the Kim Muir at Cheltenham. "He runs further, and jumps safely and he's not too flamboyant, which is ideal for Aintree. You want a horse with a bit of a brain for the National, not a tearaway."

Winter Belle, however, is fairly low down in the handicap at present and certainly needs a few of the horses above him to pull out over the next week to guarantee his place in the starting line-up, especially as the top-weight, Suny Bay, looks like standing his ground. Should Winter Belle not get in, Bonner retains the not unreasonable hope that those trainers who have yet to book a jockey, might look favourably on his National record. "The run-up is always an odd week, with horses dropping out, the going changing and jockeys getting injured, so who knows?"

Bonner is at least certain of turning out on Howard Johnson's Forestal in the Amateur Riders' race which immediately follows the Grand National. "But everybody's away in the bars by then."