Hedgehunter, the 7/1 favourite for the 2005 Grand National, put up an impressive weight-carrying performance as he strolled to victory.
Trainer Willie Mullins had concerns before the race but the nine-year-old Irish-bred readily asserted his superiority before his jockey Ruby Walsh had even asked him for an effort. He became the first horse to carry more than 11 stone to victory for over 20 years.
There was a closely fought battle for second 14 lengths behind him. Paul Nicholls’ Royal Auclair (40/1) ridden by Christian Williams got the better of Jonjo O’Neill’s Simply Gifted (66/1) and Brian Harding by a head. Royal Auclair’s achievement was quite something too. Saddled with a whopping 11 stone 10lb he was giving Simply Gifted well over a stone. Martin Pipe’s It Takes Time (18/1) was four lengths further back in fourth.
The 8/1 second favourite, Forest Gunner, trained by Richard Ford and ridden by his wife Carrie, finished fifth, 27 lengths behind the winner. Countless column inches of newsprint had been devoted to their chances. Forest Gunner had proved his stamina beyond three miles and won over the National fences, taking the Aintree Fox Hunters’ Chase under Carrie in 2004.
Richard Ford had been feeling the pressure and was spotted chain-smoking near the start. Carrie was delighted afterwards, even though Forest Gunner hadn’t quite handled the extra distance describing the ride as ‘the thrill of a lifetime’.
Second National win for Walsh
The 25-year-old Walsh was quite emotional too. Grinning from ear to ear, he said that Hedgehunter had been ‘brilliant’ and was a ‘proper horse’. Walsh had won the National at his first attempt in 2000 on Papillon (trained by his father Ted). It was obvious how much this second victory meant to him. Having appeared motionless throughout the race, he stood up in his stirrups and punched the air well before the line. His celebrations were the one aspect of his ride that provoked his father’s disapproval.
Walsh’s plan was not to move, no matter what happened, until the elbow. Why? Because Hedgehunter had fallen at the final fence in 2004 after David Casey had started pushing him. Walsh mentioned that Hedgehunter was very brave to jump Bechers second time. Walsh had to alter his approach dramatically at the last minute and admitted that the experience frightened the life out of him. Fortunately the manoeuvre didn’t have the same effect on Hedgehunter.
Mullins described his first National win as ‘fantastic’, claiming that he ‘never dreamed this’. The 48-year-old had been an avid viewer of the race since he was six and, like everyone else in racing, desperately wanted to win it.
He had a difficult time with Hedgehunter in the run up to the race. He noticed the previous week that the son of Montelimar had a slightly snotty nose. Having prepared the horse with the National as his target from the start of the season, he admitted that it was ‘an awful scare’.
Mullins decided to keep his observations to himself and gave Hedgehunter an extremely easy week in the hope that rest would speed his recovery. He had not even cantered the horse until he arrived at Aintree a few days earlier. Mullins confessed he thought at one point that he might have to withdraw Hedgehunter on the Thursday before the race. Fortunately the horse’s nose looked clean and he appeared to have picked up by final declaration time.
For Hedgehunter’s owner Trevor Hemmings the result was the proverbial ‘dream come true’. He had his first ever winner at the Cheltenham Festival a month earlier with Trabolgan. JP McManus and John Hales (prolific National Hunt owners themselves) both suggested to him afterwards that it could be his year. They were right.
Hemmings thought after Hedgehunter’s fall in 2004 that he might not be destined to win at Aintree but admitted to having a small bet on his horse when he was available at 40/1 in the Grand National odds.
National nightmare for McCoy
The field included three past winners, Amberleigh House (16/1), Monty’s Pass (33/1) and Bindaree (33/1) and all the placed horses in 2004. The most fancied of them was Clan Royal, the 9/1 third favourite, who had finished second under Liam Cooper for Jonjo O’Neill. This time he was the mount of champion jockey AP McCoy as he was owned by his new boss, JP McManus.
After some early jostling Glenelly Gale (150/1) took the lead, closely pursued by the grey Double Honour (25/1). There were relatively few early casualties after the clean start but an unexpected one was Lord Atterbury (25/1), third in 2004, who fell at the first. Frenchman’s Creek (50/1) made a major blunder, unseating Jimmy McCarthy. Risk Accessor (100/1) and Ballycassidy (66/1) both ejected their pilots at the second.
Glenelly Gale maintained his lead, setting a decent pace. McCoy managed to anchor the horse that he had described as ‘ignorant in the nicest possible way’ and ‘heavy-headed’ until they started making progress at the eighth. It was Clan Royal rather than McCoy who was dictating the pace.
The breast girth (which prevents the saddle from slipping backwards) had broken. A slipping saddle can be dangerous at any time. Experiencing it in Aintree’s ultimate test is potentially disastrous. The race commentators failed to notice that McCoy was perched perilously close to his horse’s hindquarters. By the time they reached the Chair (the 15th) he had been carted past Glenelly Gale into the lead.
The brakes had failed but the steering was still working. McCoy was able to keep Clan Royal away from two loose horses careering about on the inner. Walsh had Hedgehunter settled on the inside not far from the pace. At the fence before second Bechers Double Honour fell in front of Walsh. He lost a stirrup but quickly regained it. Glenelly Gale weakened, leaving McCoy with a five length advantage over the mounted field. A loose horse was on his inner. The other appeared to be out of the way having chosen to go wide.
As McCoy approached Bechers, he survived the loose horse on his inner cutting across him but, a few strides later, both decided to run across the front of the fence carrying Clan Royal with them.
McCoy ended up on the deck on the inside in front of Bechers with three loose horses for company. Walsh, who had been hugging the inner, had to yank Hedgehunter violently right to avoid them.
It was a desperately unlucky scenario for McCoy but, if anyone thinks that he would have won without the interference, they should look at the race again. Clan Royal had used up a lot of energy pulling and the saddle was only going to continue travelling one way – backwards.
McCoy’s demise left Walsh in the lead. He had Hedgehunter settled nicely and stuck to his plan. He did nothing while his horse kept travelling and jumping. The field were well-beaten before he even started to push at the Elbow. Twenty one horses completed but the 2005 Grand National gave favourite followers their smoothest ride in years.