It took a photo for the judges to decide that Neptune Collonges, a 33/1 outsider in the Grand National betting ridden by Daryl Jacob, had got the better of Sunnyhillboy. The distance was given as a nose but it was little more than a flared nostril of the striking grey.
No commentator had dared to predict the call. It was one of the most pregnant pauses in racing history. The cameramen focused on Sunnyhillboy as the result was announced but rapidly redirected their lenses to an ecstatic Jacob reaching for the sky in delight.
It was a cruel outcome for Richie McLernon, the losing jockey. He had jumped the last upsides the leader, the 8/1 joint favourite, Ted Walsh’s Seabass ridden by his daughter Katie. He must have thought that he had the race won as the Jonjo O’Neill trained Sunnyhillboy, a 16/1 shot, passed the weakening Seabass to take the lead at the elbow. Neptune Collonges, trained by Paul Nicholls (pictured), was a length and half behind him, toiling in third. The rest of the field were too far behind to trouble the trio of protagonists.
Sunnyhillboy appeared to be going far better than his rivals on the run in. Jacob had been pumping away on Neptune Collonges since well before the last fence and seemed booked for second place when he passed Seabass 150 yards from the line.
But getting the better of Seabass seemed to galvanise the grey. He changed legs and lengthened his stride in a renewed effort to get alongside Sunnyhillboy and deny him victory on the line. Jacob admitted that he didn’t know where the line was but kept driving – and said that the horse had a heart of gold.
Seabass finished five lengths behind the leading pair in third, putting Katie Walsh in the record books as the most successful female National jockey to date. She said afterwards that she felt from some way out that Seabass was not going to get the distance.
The Evan Williams trained Cappa Bleu, sent off at 16/1, crossed the line seven lengths further back in fourth under Paul Moloney. They had been hampered at the first Foinavon and stayed on to beat Dessie Hughes’ 100/1 shot, In Compliance by three lengths.
Victory for an outsider
Neptune Collonges had been largely ignored in the Grand National betting. The statisticians thought that 11 stone 6 would be too great a burden for the eleven year old. They had a point. No horse had won with that much weight since the all-conquering Aintree legend Red Rum in 1977.
They should have taken a good look at the French bred son of Dom Alco’s size and conformation before writing him off. Physically he was more of a Denman, who defied top weight to take victory in the Hennessy (and was so substantial that he was affectionately known as ‘The Tank’ at Ditcheat) than a Little Polveir, the appropriately named diminutive National winner in 1989. Little Polveir carried just 10 stone 3.
Neptune Collonges was also the wrong colour to succeed in the National. He was the first grey to win it since Nicolaus Silver in 1961.
The track record of the trainer in the National didn’t inspire much confidence either. Nicholls had saddled more than 50 horses (many of them with seemingly strong claims) for the Aintree marathon without a single winner.
The usually pragmatic Nicholls was moved to tears as he finally scored in the race that had eluded him for so long. The £547,000 prize money also secured his position as champion trainer for the season after a closely fought battle with Nicky Henderson.
Henderson had dominated the National day card, saddling three winners before the main event. Those victories provoked strong support for his sole National hope Shakalakaboomboom who was sent off as the 8/1 joint favourite under Barry Geraghty. Like Nicholls, Henderson had never managed to win the National.
For much of the race Henderson looked to stand a decent chance of gaining his first victory. The eight year old Shakalakaboomboom was up with the leaders from the off and took the lead four fences from home. His challenge was short-lived at the business end of the race. He was found wanting on the stamina front by the second last enabling Seabass to pass him. He eventually finished nearly 30 lengths behind the winner in ninth.
An emotional day for more than one owner
John Hales, owner of Neptune Collonges, had been moved to tears when interviewed before racing had even started. He announced his intention to retire both Neptune Collonges and Noland, his other eleven-year-old runner on the day after they had raced – provided Neptune Collonges didn’t refuse at the first fence.
He was not wrong to mention the possibility. The commentator noticed that Neptune Collonges had to be ridden away from the line. Neptune Collonges’ enthusiasm for the game must have been suspect as Jacob earned his riding fee long before the closing stages. Fortunately he warmed to the task in hand in running.
Hales also thought that both his runners were past their best and said that he just wanted to bring both horses home safely and put them in a field to enjoy their retirement. Neptune Collonges’ participation in the National had been a subject of serious dispute in his family.
There was reason behind the dissent. Hales lost his star chaser, One Man, at Aintree in 1998 and felt that the course owed him some consolation. He got it.
For JP McManus, owner of Sunnyhillboy and the 10/1 third favourite, the Cheltenham Gold Cup winning Synchronised who carried his first colours, it was both a frustrating and tragic day. Whilst Sunnyhillboy was desperately unlucky to be robbed on the line Synchronised, whom he bred, fell at the 6th under AP Mc Coy and had to be put down.
Neptune Collonges’ victory was not only a fairytale end to his career but a massive payday for the punters in the Grand National odds who were not deterred by ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’ and supported him.