Jonjo O’Neill

Jonjo O’Neill  Jockey-turned-trainer John Joseph “Jonjo” O’Neill rode eight times in the Grand National, but never completed the course. In fact, he never got beyond Becher’s Brook on the second circuit.

His first ride in the National was aboard Glenkiln, the lesser fancied of two horses owned by Noel Le Mare, in 1973. Glenkiln fell at the Chair, while his stable companion, Red Rum, ridden by Brian Fletcher, pulled off a dramatic, last-gasp victory over the gallant Crisp. O’Neill had some well-fancied rides in the race, including the ill-fated favourites, Rag Trade and Alverton, in 1978 and 1979, respectively, although he later admitted, “Never at any stage did I think I was going to win any of them.”

O’Neill retired as a jockey in 1986, but even joining the training ranks did little, or nothing, to improve his fortune in the Grand National. In 2004, Clan Royal was only headed in the final hundred yards after jockey Liam Cooper lost his whip at the fourth last fence, eventually finishing second, beaten 3 lengths, behind Amberleigh House. In 2005, despite a broken breast girth and slipping saddle, the same horse, ridden by A.P. McCoy, was 6 lengths ahead and travelling ominously well when carried out by a loose horse at Becher’s Brook on the second circuit; Simply Gifted, ridden by Brian Harding, finished third, at 66/1, in the same race.

In total, O’Neill saddled 14 runners in the National without success but, in 2010, his luck changed. Don’t Push It, again ridden by A.P. McCoy was backed into 10/1 joint favourite and, having led over the last, forged clear in the closing stages to beat Black Apalachi by 5 lengths. O’Neill later reflected on the victory, saying, “I think we’ll always remember the magical day he won the Grand National as it was one of the greatest afternoons in the life of myself, [owner] J.P. [McManus] and A.P. as we had all been trying to win the race for so many years”.

Leighton Aspell

Leighton Aspell  Many of the best National Hunt jockeys of the modern era, including Jonjo O’Neill, John Francome, Peter Scudamore and even Richard Johnson – who’s ridden more winners than anyone else in the history of the sport, apart from Sir Anthony Peter “A.P.” McCoy – have failed to win the Grand National. Not so Leighton Aspell who, unlike those illustrious names, will never be champion jockey, but has won the National not just once, but twice.

 

Aspell first rode in the National, at the age of 27, in 2003 and later admitted that he was “thrilled to bits” to finish second on 40/1 outsider Supreme Glory, 12 lengths behind the winner, Monty’s Pass. He came a cropper at Becher’s Brook, the Chair and Valentine’s Brook in 2004, 2005 and 2006, respectively and, when he pulled up Billyvoddan, who was tailed off at the time, approaching the first open ditch on the second circuit in 2007, his chance of winning the National appeared to be gone forever.

 

Three months later, no longer enjoying racing or going racing, Aspell retired from race riding. However, after working as pupil assistant to Arundel trainer John Dunlop, he began to miss race riding and announced his comeback as a jockey in April, 2009. He didn’t ride in the Grand National until 2011 when, although he completed the course, was beaten the proverbial “country mile” on 66/1 outsider In Compliance, who finished thirteenth of the 19 finishers.

 

However, undeterred, Aspell was back at Aintree three years later, aboard 25/1 chance Pineau De Re, an 11-year-old trained by Dr. Richard Newland. A small, but classy, individual, Pineau De Re made a few jumping errors, but ultimately pulled clear on the run-in to beat Balthazar King by 5 lengths. Aspell said afterwards, “It’s a wonderful day. This is what we do it for.”

 

Lo and behold, Aspell won the Grand National again in 2015, aboard another 25/1 chance, Many Clouds, an 8-year-old trained by Oliver Sherwood. In so doing, he became the first jockey since Brian Fletcher, in 1974 – and just the third since World War II – to win back-to-back Nationals.

Toby Balding

Toby Balding  The late Gerald “Toby” Balding, who died in 2014 at the age of 78, had the distinction of winning the Grand National twice, with Highland Wedding in 1969 and Little Polveir in 1989. Indeed, in his long and distinguished career, he saddled over 2,000 winners, including Beech Road and Morley Street in the Champion Hurdle, in 1989 and 1991, respectively, and Cool Ground in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1992.

His first Grand National winner, Highland Wedding, had completed the National Course twice before, finishing eighth behind Anglo in 1966 and seventh behind Red Alligator in 1986. He arrived at Aintree in 1969 fresh from his third victory in four years – the 1968 renewal was abandoned – in the Eider Chase, over 4 miles and 122 yards at Newcastle in February and, in the absence of regular jockey Owen McNally, was ridden by Eddie Harty.

By now a 12-year-old, Highland Wedding was known to be as stubborn as a mule, on occasions, at home, but as Balding later explained, “He wasn’t a villain, just a bit independent so there was no question of us bullying him. We just had to wait for him.” In any event, on firm going, Highland Wedding consented to put his best foot forward and came home 12 lengths ahead of 50/1 outsider Steel Chance, ridden by Richard Pitman.

Little Polveir, too, had previous experience of the National Course, having finished ninth behind West Tip in 1986, but had fallen at the Chair and unseated his rider at Valentine’s Brook on the second circuit in two subsequent attempts. He didn’t join Toby Balding until January, 1989, but was ridden on his first two starts by young amateur rider Philip Fenton which, according to his trainer, “he enjoyed enormously after the pros had knocked lumps out of him in the past”.

Ridden in the National by professional Jimmy Frost, at 3lb overweight, Little Polveir took the lead at the final fence on the first circuit, the water jump, and led, or disputed the lead, for the rest of the way. In fact, after Becher’s Brook second time around he was never headed and, with a riderless horse for company, came home 7 lengths ahead of West Tip. Balding said later, “I don’t think any of my horses ever left for the races in better shape than Little Polveir as he headed for Aintree.”