I missed the Grand National last year through injury so spent the day doing TV work. But commentating on it is nothing like the build up you feel as a jockey.
The way I look at is that it’s a huge sporting occasion and there are millions watching worldwide – so just go out there and f**king enjoy it.
I take every race as it comes now. No Grand National is any more or any less important to me as I get older. I’ll be 40 in May but Richard Johnson’s got a year on me, so he’ll be the oldest jockey riding on Saturday.
I still approach it in much the same way as I ever did and would have a fairly strong opinion going into Saturday’s race about how it will unfold.
You do your homework the same as anyone else studying a soccer match or a rugby match.
What horses will be at the front and setting the pace, what horses would you like to have around you and which ones you want to avoid.
Less is More
You don’t do any extra physical preparation just because it’s the Grand National. Doing more running, riding out or extra weights isn’t going to help you just because you’re riding over an extreme distance of 4m 2f.
My plan in every National is to get to the back of the first fence, then the back of the second fence. That’s exactly what I’ll be doing on Rathvinden. I’ll take it from fence to fence, because so much that can go wrong is outside your control anyway.
It may sound obvious, but I always want to go where there’s less horses, so there’s less chance of interference, less chance of being brought down, less chance of somebody crossing you on the approach to a fence.
I’ll ride myself into space if I can. I try to keep a semi-circle in front of me and that’s not easy with 40 runners. If there’s 25 runners going to a fence from the middle to the inside of it, I’d sooner take my chance on the middle to outside of it.
The maths tells you there’ll be less horses to deal with.
However, it can change from fence to fence, so I ride it where there’s room, where I can find more space. Then I just try to create a semi-circle in front of me so I’ve more options. If something crowds me from the left, I’ll move right. If I’m crowded from the right, I take a pull to the left.
In previous Nationals, you also had to deal with a lot of loose horses who used to have a major bearing on how the race was decided. However, that also means the pace of the race is now that bit quicker, because you’re not second guessing what the loose horse will do.
But the improvements and the catchment areas the authorities introduced, now means that loose horses are generally taken out of the race safely. Every change Aintree has made has been for the betterment and longevity of the race and they should be complimented and applauded for it.
The race has evolved and even changed a lot over the years. But things should improve as technology or research or work practices get better. When I first won the Grand National on Papillon in 2000, I had to get a VHS video to watch the replay. Now you can sit in the weigh-room after the race and watch it within the hour!
You can spend a lot of time in the weigh room on Grand National day. Every jockey has to be at the racecourse for a briefing at 1pm – even though the race isn’t until 5.15pm. It’s a good idea, but makes for a very long day. It’s a safe haven. The course is so packed and if you weren’t in your own space everyone would be looking for a piece of you. It’s easier to stay focused by just watching the racing unfold in there.
Under starter’s orders
Everyone wants a good start in the National. If you get away where you want first time – you’re happy, if you don’t and the starter calls them back, you breathe a sigh of relief. If you’re riding a free-running, buzzy sort you want to get away first time. With a more relaxed horse, a false start can perk them up a bit and get them thinking about the job in hand.
Make no mistake though, it’s not easy to get 40 racehorses – or 40 jockeys – to line up and get away first time. The starter’s job in racing is the one job I’d never want. It’s very easy to criticise them on television when the camera is half a mile away, but starters need eyes in the back of their head and more, to get the Grand National away smoothly first time.
I’ll take Saturday it as it comes on Rathvinden. I’ve missed a few Nationals recently so I’m aware that I’ve more behind me than in front of me. Will I savour this one any more than the others. That all depends on how I get on!