The 2004 Grand National witnessed a much-loved and familiar old face in the winner’s enclosure as Ginger McCain (pictured) landed a fourth win in the showpiece race.
Aintree came alive when his Amberleigh House (16/1) emerged from an unpromising position and outstayed younger opponents. The 12-year-old had been very patiently ridden by Graham Lee to win by three lengths from 10/1 co-favourite Clan Royal, a nine-year-old partnered by Liam Cooper and trained by Jonjo O’Neill.
The eight-year-old 40/1 outsider Lord Atterbury finished five lengths third for a delighted Martin Pipe. Monty’s Pass (20/1), the National winner in 2003, was a creditable but distant fourth, shouldering over a stone more than the three horses in front of him. A length behind him, Spot Thedifference (50/1) stayed on to take fifth. Smarty (100/1), the National runner-up in 2001, claimed the dregs of the prize money in sixth.
For John Halewood, the owner of Amberleigh House and founder of Halewood International, the win fulfilled a childhood dream. Halewood had grown up on Merseyside and gone to Aintree to watch the National since he was a young boy. Back then his dream was to own a runner.
Halewood had known McCain since his Southport days and asked Ginger to buy him a National horse. The shrewd McCain bought Amberleigh House in 2000 and won the Becher Chase with him in 2001 and was the runner-up in 2002 and 2003. Amberleigh House clearly relished Aintree’s toughest fences. He finished third, beaten 14 lengths by Monty’s Pass, in the 2003 National.
A dramatic finish
On the day Amberleigh House started with realistic claims but McCain was probably the only person who thought his horse could win four from home. Hedgehunter (11/1) and Clan Royal were disputing the lead with Lord Atterbury a couple of lengths behind them. Amberleigh House was a distant fourth and lost further ground drifting to the right in front of the ditch. He looked set for place money at best.
Lee didn’t panic but gradually closed on the leading trio. By the second last Amberleigh House was some 10 lengths behind the protagonists and jumped right again. At the last fence Clan Royal took off first and plunged over but landed running with Lord Atterbury half a length behind him. The long time leader Hedgehunter had obviously given everything and weakened into third taking a heavy, tired fall. Amberleigh House drifted right again and was in no danger of encountering an additional obstacle.
Meanwhile Liam Cooper was going for everything and Clan Royal clung to the lead approaching the elbow but he drifted dramatically left and was in danger of missing the elbow altogether. Lord Atterbury steered a straighter path but looked to be emptying. Cooper managed to yank Clan Royal back on course, broadsiding Lord Atterbury in the process.
Clan Royal was just holding off Lord Atterbury half way up the run-in with Amberleigh House now only a length behind them. Lee finally went for his whip and made relentless progress on the outside, taking the lead in the final 100 yards. Aintree erupted when everyone realised that Ginger McCain, already a legend at Aintree, had sent out his fourth winner.
It looked as if Cooper had been merciless. He had been waving his whip hand furiously since before the last fence. The animal rights brigade had no cause for concern. Cooper had actually dropped his persuader when Clan Royal made a mess of the 26th fence. Undaunted by the loss he delivered virtual back-handers all the way to the line.
What happened on the day?
It was a lively Grand National betting market with Clan Royal, Bindaree, Jurancon II and Joss Naylor sent off as the 10/1 co favourites of the 39 runners. The Willie Mullins-trained Hedgehunter was also strongly fancied at 11/1.
The first fence claimed the prominent Artic Jack (20/1) who over-jumped and crumpled on landing. Further back in the field Luzcadou (200/1) also went, bringing down Kelami (66/1). Alcapone (80/1) took the lead under Noel Fehily going into the second. At the third fence, the open ditch, Hedgehunter was alongside Alcapone with Bramblehill Duke (200/1) in close attendance. Shardam (18/1) pecked badly on landing, catapulting Tom Scudamore out of the saddle.
The fourth fence ended the hopes of Jurancon II’s followers as he fell under AP McCoy in midfield. Amberleigh House had to jink to the right to avoid him on landing.
By the fifth fence Bramblehill Duke remembered that he was not exactly keen on the National fences and jumped hesitantly – he’d fallen at the second in 2003. When faced with Becher’s he refused, unseating James Davies. He had also refused under AP McCoy at Fontwell years ago. Attitude/self preservation was in his genes. His full brother Ishma was also prone to calling time – not just over standard fences but in point-to-points too – and lived to a ripe old age.
Blowing Wind (33/1), who finished third in 2001 and 2002 and eighth in 2003, also slammed the brakes on. He hampered Bindaree who unseated Carl Llewellyn as a result. Blowing Wind had refused on his previous start at Sandown two months earlier, also unseating AP McCoy.
Bramblehill Duke and Blowing Wind were right to be cautious. Becher’s did prove to be dangerous. Akarus (33/1), Bounce Back (50/1), Risk Accessor (66/1) and Montreal (200/1) fell and What’s Up Boys (25/1) was brought down. Skycab (200/1) made a bad mistake that unseated the subsequent National specialist, Leighton Aspell. Bounce Back lived up to his name. He continued riderless and survived two more falls apparently undamaged.
The Paul Nicholls-trained Exit To Wave (66/1) was also hampered and pulled up before the ninth fence. At the front of the field Alcapone made a hash of the twelfth, allowing Hedgehunter and Puntal (150/1) to demote him to third. The eventual winner was midfield.
Hedgehunter had a lead of three lengths approaching the Chair and flew it, untroubled by the posse of loose horses around him. Lord Atterbury moved into third whilst Takagi (25/1) faltered badly on landing, unseating Davy Russell. Hedgehunter held the lead as the diminished field of 22 set out on the second circuit. Clan Royal had been stalking his way round on the inside and looked to be going well, now in fourth. Mantles Prince (250/1) pulled up after the 16th. Southern Star (25/1) was pulled up after the next.
Alexandra Banquet (100/1), who had been prominent early, fell at the 18th. Puntal blundered badly at the next, unseating Daniel Howard. Joss Naylor had never been going well and was pulled up before the 19th. Gunner Wellburn (22/1) was pulled up before the 20th. Le Coudray (28/1) fell at second Becher’s when in seventh place. Just In Debt (33/1) was hampered by a loose horse and unseated Jim Culloty at the next.
Five fences from home Wonder Weasel (200/1) was well back in the field when he jumped left and was pulled up. Paul Moloney called it a day on the tailed off Royal Atalza (100/1) before the second last.
Eleven horses eventually finished. Ardent Scout (50/1) was seventh with Bear On Board (14/1), Kingsmark (66/1), The Bunny Boiler (33/1) and Davids Lad (12/1) behind him in that order. There were no serious casualties.
Amberleigh House’s win sent Ginger McCain into the record books as he equalled Fred Rimell’s achievement of saddling four National winners. It also provided Graham Lee with his biggest ever win over jumps and it was not too long until he switched codes and retired to the flat, an altogether more sedate profession.