It’s not easy to win the National from the front but Ballabriggs, a 14/1 shot in the Grand National betting, was prominent from the off and managed to outstay the field under a vigorous drive from Jason Maguire.
He bravely fought off a final challenge from the impeccably connected amateur, Sam Waley-Cohen on Oscar Time, to win by two and a quarter lengths. It was a resonant win for trainer Donald McCain (pictured) and his father Ginger who handled the three-time winner Red Rum so masterfully. It was the family’s fifth Grand National success. Donald had been very involved in the preparation of Amberleigh House, the victor in 2004, but this was the first winner to be sent out in his name.
The ailing 80-year-old Ginger was there on the day to witness his son’s achievement. He famously quipped after the race that the trainer had done a ‘cracking job’ and that he would congratulate his father if he ever met him.
Owned by Trevor Hemmings, Ballabriggs had taken the lead before the final circuit and survived a very serious mistake six fences out to maintain it all the way to the line. The original plan was to get to the front at the elbow but the Irish bred 10-year-old was enthusiastic from the off and Maguire decided not to disappoint him.
Maguire described Ballabriggs’ performance as ‘unbelievable’. He was more than surprised that he managed to get home after travelling ‘too well’ over the first two miles – especially as he was considered by some to be lacking in stamina.
Oscar Time, also sent off at 14/1, had never been far off the pace either and looked to be going ominously well after the last fence. Owned by jockey Sam’s father, Robert Waley-Cohen, and trained by Martin Lynch in Ireland, he closed in on the leader at the elbow but was found wanting on the run in.
The bookies were relieved that the champion jockey, AP McCoy, on board the 9/1 joint second favourite Don’t Push It, never looked likely to challenge the leading pair when it mattered.
The 11-year-old owned by JP McManus had been settled in mid-division early on but moved through the field to track the leaders close to home. Even with McCoy’s persistent urgings he could only finish 12 lengths behind them in third.
He had been the subject of significant support on the day, shortening from 11/1, despite being saddled with a lung-bursting 11 stone 10lb. His trainer Jonjo O’Neill was delighted with his performance. McCoy said that he had run his heart out and wished that every horse he rode in the National was as good as him.
The ultra-consistent State Of Play, sent off at 28/1 under Paul Moloney for Evan Williams, snatched fourth place from the Paul Nicholls-trained Niche Market (16/1) in the last 100 yards. State Of Play had always looked to be a banker for a place. He had finished third and fourth in previous years. Moloney thought that age was catching up with his 11-year-old mount and that he would have benefited from slower ground.
Drama after the line
It was an unusually warm day at Aintree. Ballabriggs was exhausted and extremely hot after running so enthusiastically under 11 stone. Maguire knew that he had given everything and dismounted soon after crossing the line to allow the victor to undergo an ‘ice-bucket challenge’ style dousing.
It was not stewards but mostly jockeys who had hit the deck early on who were armed with buckets of water, ready to cool off McCain’s wobbly winner.
Don’t Push It was also out on his feet after the line. McCoy had been kicking him along for the best part of a mile and immediately relieved him of the live section of his huge weight.
Oscar Time was the only horse to finish in the first three to make it to the winners’ enclosure. Maguire and McCoy walked back with their saddles whilst their horses were led straight back to the stables for a thorough hosing down.
How did the market leaders get on?
The 15/2 favourite in the Grand National betting, The Midnight Club ridden by Ruby Walsh for Willie Mullins could only finish 27 lengths behind the winner in sixth. He had shortened from 9/1 on the day as the usual ‘Walsh factor’ kicked in with last minute punters.
The Midnight Club looked to have serious claims coming into the race on the back of a stamina-testing Grade 2 win in the Bobbyjo Chase at Fairyhouse in February. He gave his followers a run for their money, keeping sight of the leaders but his chances were diminished when he made a mess of the third fence.
Walsh said afterwards that he knew he would be up against it from that point. His cause was compromised further by serious interference four fences from home. Walsh did well to keep the partnership together after they jumped the fence perfectly but then had to clear the prone Killyglen (66/1) on landing.
Silver By Nature (9/1) was the joint second favourite having won Haydock’s Grand National Trial in February for the second consecutive year for Lucinda Russell, Scotland’s most prominent National Hunt trainer.
Punters had failed to spot that he was a soft ground specialist. He was out the back early on and never looked likely to strike a blow. He finished some 90 lengths behind the winner in 12th place under Peter Buchanan.
Big Fella Thanks (12/1) who had been placed for Paul Nicholls in 2010 was saddled by Ferdy Murphy this time. He was deliberately given a stamina-saving ride by Graham Lee but still didn’t appear to get the distance. He finished 13 lengths behind The Midnight Club in seventh.
Nicholls’ most fancied runner, What A Friend (12/1) partly owned by Sir Alex Ferguson, never looked likely to score and was pulled up four fences from home by Daryl Jacob. He has always suffered from respiratory issues.
Tragedy and triumph
27 of the 40 runners set out on the second circuit. They were flagged round fence 20 and also bypassed Bechers. It was the first time that fences had been omitted in the National. Both obstacles had an ominous screen on the landing side for all to see.
The Stewart family’s Ornais trained by Nicholls and Willie Mullins’ Dooneys Gate were fatally injured. Their fates overshadowed this renewal and prompted major changes to the course.
On the positive side, the 2011 Grand National was a good one for plenty of punters and a timely triumph for the McCains. Ginger passed away peacefully a few months after experiencing the joy of his son’s win.