You never really think about winning an Aintree Grand National.
Even when the starter’s tape flies up, all you’re concerned about is getting to the first fence, getting over it and then doing the same again at the next.
It’s such a unique race that all the best plotting, planning and tactics count for nothing once they jump off. Ideally you need to be on a horse with a bit of class so you can ride the race you want, get into a decent rhythm and manoeuvre yourself into a winning position.
But even that only gets you about 90 per cent of the way there. The other 10 per cent is just as important – luck!
I ride Sir Des Champs for Willie Mullins on Saturday and I’ve been lucky enough to get my name on the Grand National roll of honour twice. Firstly, with Papillon in 2000 (above) and later with Hedgehunter in 2005 (for Willie Mullins, below).
It would be fantastic to win it again. To say you’ve rode in, never mind won the Grand National is an unbelievable achievement. It carries so much prestige. When people hear you’re a jockey the first thing they usually ask is whether you’ve ever ridden in the Grand National. To be able to say you have – and that you’ve won it twice – that’s just magic.
I was just 20-years-old when I won on Papillon, my first ride in the big race, for my dad Ted.
You often hear sports people saying their first big win passed them by, or that they didn’t appreciate what they’d achieved until they did it again.
That wasn’t the case with me. I knew what a big deal it was to ride the Grand National winner.
From the time I was six-years-old, only one Irish horse had won the Aintree Grand National and that was Bobbyjo under Paul Carberry, a year earlier.
Riding in it was a dream come true, to finish it was an achievement. Winning it had never even crossed my mind.
The one thing that struck me about Papillon and Hedgehunter’s victories was that they were only doing a half-speed on the second circuit, travelling really well within themselves.
I even had to keep slowing them down to make sure they conserved enough stamina for the end of the race. That was a huge advantage as they weren’t flat to the boards the whole way around. I could let the race unfold and strike when I was ready. Once I let Hedgehunter’s head go, he flew home and won convincingly. With Papillon it was more gradual, but I still thought I was going to win it two fences out.
Coincidentally, I’d won the Irish Grand National on Commanche Court (2000) and Numbersixvalverde (2005), the years I also won at Aintree.
This year, I was beaten a short-head on Bless the Wings in the Irish National on Easter Monday at Fairyhouse. But I’ve already one ‘National’ to my name this season anyway as Bashboy won the Australian equivalent last August. Maybe it’s an omen.
Believe me, if you offered me the chance to be battling out the finish at Aintree on Saturday, I’d take your hand off for the chance of completing a hat-trick of wins in the world’s most famous race.
Leighton Aspell is going for consecutive victories on Many Clouds, and three Grand National wins-in-a-row. How must he be feeling?
What does it take to win a Grand National?
Bad horses don’t win the Aintree Grand National. Bad jumpers or non-stayers won’t win in either because the race conditions have changed so much recently. You now need a horse with a bit of class to win it.
The likes of dual King George winner Silviniaco Conti, former Irish Grand National winner Shutthefrontdoor and last year’s winner Many Clouds have that.
Ideally as a jockey you’d like some company to the ‘Elbow’ on the run-in, before you ask your horse for everything. It’s a long way home from the final fence at Aintree and you don’t want your horse idling on the run-in and getting distracted by the noise form the crowd.
But I’ll take it whatever way it comes if it meant I could win on Sir Des Champs and capture a third Grand National.