Patience and persistence paid off for jockey Ryan Mania on Saturday as he helped Sue Smith to become only the third woman trainer to win Britain’s most famous and most controversial steeplechase, the Grand National.
The Scottish jockey, having his first ride in the race, briefly quit horse racing during a frustrating 2011 season. But in a fairytale turnaround, the 23-year-old, who only returned to the saddle this winter, rode 66-1 outsider Auroras Encore to victory in the four-and-a-half-mile marathon.
After an almost flawless run, the 11-year-old stormed home ahead of Cappa Bleu and Teaforthree in front of a 70,000 crowd in Liverpool, watched by an estimated 600 million television audience.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better ride and the old horse was loving it as well,” said Mania, after winning by nine lengths on a horse who had failed to finish three of his last seven starts and was well off the pace in the other four.
Mania started working with 65-year-old Smith and her husband Harvey after a six-month hiatus when his former boss lost his training license.
“I couldn’t have come back without them,” he said. “The opportunities for jockeys up north are very limited and I am lucky to have such a good yard behind me.”
There was further welcome news for racing fans as it was confirmed that all 40 of the horses and riders to start the race returned home unscathed — although only 17 of those completed the course.
The annual Aintree event had been under intense scrutiny from animals rights groups after recent editions of the race had been marred by a high number of equine fatalities — 11 since 2002.
That prompted race organizers to introduce a number of new safety measures this year, spending more than £1 million ($1.5 million) on alterations, including modifying the structure of the jumps themselves to make them safer and more forgiving and watering the ground the ensure going no faster than good-to-soft.
However, there were two deaths in races in the first two days of this week’s meeting, prompting criticism from animal welfare groups.
“We are delighted there have been no fatalities in today’s big race,” Dr. Mark Kennedy from the World Society for the Protection of Animals told CNN on Saturday .
“The (earlier) deaths of the horses Battlefront and Little Josh reflects current risk of fatalities in steeplechasing which needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.
“Horse deaths or fatalities at the Grand National are not freak accidents, but statistical probabilities. The risks prove to be high each year. We are not calling for a ban of the Grand National or a ban of horse racing, but merely to make the race safer for the horse and indeed the jockey.”
In a nonetheless eventful race, on which in excess of £100 million ($150 million) was wagered by punters, Seabass, the 11-2 favorite and last year’s third-placer, ran well for Katie Walsh until running out of steam with a handful of fences to jump, eventually fading to 13th.
She was seeking to become the first woman rider to win the race, but caused controversy in the buildup when she claimed it would have been “a lot worse if two jockeys had lost their lives” in reference to the two fatalities at last year’s Grand National.
Her brother Ruby, riding the second favorite On His Own, was a casualty at Valentine’s Brook, the 25th fence of 30. But fortune did smile on swashbuckling amateur jockey Sam Waley-Cohen, who finished a creditable fourth on Oscar Time, the runner-up in 2011.
By Alysen Miller and Gary Morley
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