OUTLOOK’S CLOUDY FOR SHERWOOD!
Jonathan Powell talks to the owner and jockey of Grand National favourite Many Clouds
Only five horses have won back to back Grand Nationals since the race was first run in 1837. The last and most famous chaser of all to claim the feat was the marvellous Red Rum in 1973 and 1974.Three years later he famously added a record-breaking third victory amid scenes seldom if ever seen before at the great old racecourse.
Several horses have tried to do the double since Red Rum with the splendidly reliable 2008 hero Comply Or Die finishing runner-up 12 months later.
While the task remains as tantalisingly elusive as ever, the jaunty victory of last year’s winner Many Clouds in a key trial at Kelso on March 13 offered genuine hope that he can become the sixth horses in history to win successive Nationals.
The indecent haste with which the bookies promoted Many Clouds to the head of the ante post market at prices as short as 7-1 suggests they already fear a monster pay out if he triumphs at Aintree on April 9.
Fresh and undeniably keen, Many Clouds tanked through the race jumping boldly, led as early as the fourth fence, was in charge from that point and stretched clear for an easy victory without being asked any questions by his jockey Leighton Aspell.
It is hard to disagree with the thoughts of experienced trainer Oliver Sherwood as he greeted the horse in the winner’s enclosure at Kelso.
“That was just what the doctor ordered. The horse was electric today and Leighton should be worried. I might apply for a licence again as he looks such a joy to ride!
“You can see why I wanted to give him a run as he might have been too fresh and exuberant going straight to Aintree without one.”
When Kelso’s original meeting was abandoned a week earlier Sherwood was left contemplating the unappealing prospect of having to run Many Clouds in the Cheltenham Gold Cup ahead of his date with destiny at Aintree. So you can imagine his delight when the racing authorities gave Kelso the go-ahead to stage the card seven days later.
Welcoming the new mood of flexibility in the sport Sherwood suggested, “I’m sure this would not have happened ten years ago.It is fantastic Kelso were able to put it on again. It certainly helped solve my dilemma about whether to run him in the Gold Cup.”
It is easy to understand the trainer’s reluctance to commit his best horse to the Gold Cup after his shockingly poor run in the race 12 months ago. With conditions apparently ideal, Many Clouds underperformed so badly that Sherwood feared he had lost any chance of winning the Grand National.
He left the horse alone for almost two weeks, just keeping him ticking over, before upping his homework as Aintree beckoned.
Even so he was far from sure about the wisdom of committing Many Clouds to the National after his display at Chel- tenham and admits, with disarming honesty, that if the decision had been his the horse would have remained in his box at Lambourn on National day.
He recalls, “To this day I don’t know that happened in the Gold Cup but something wasn’t right and he didn’t run his race. Maybe he got out of bed on the wrong side.Who knows?
“I deliberately didn’t show him a National fence and he had just the one school to freshen him up.
“Deep down I thought he could have gone over the top. But then what do I know about horses?
“I remember thinking that we were taking him to Aintree a year too soon. His owner Trevor Hemmings knew that was how I felt. In the end it was his decision to run the horse, thank goodness.
“I told him ‘Many Clouds is healthy, fit and well. If you want to run, we’ll run’.”
It was hardly the ringing endorsement of a trainer who felt he had his horse spot on for the toughest challenge in racing.Yet Hemmings did not hesitate.
Sherwood adds, “I can’t thank him enough for making the right decision.”
This time there are no doubts about returning to Aintree. The horse is in the form of his life and his trainer is enjoying another lucrative season.
Sherwood, now 60 ,reflects, “The Grand National win gave me huge confidence and I have been thinking about Many Clouds going for the double all season.
“I hadn’t realised what a worldwide race it is. Last year I had to do interviews
with people from America, Japan and Australia.
“My record in the race was poor prior to last season as none of my four previous runners managed to complete the course. But Many Clouds took to the place like a duck to water. After he’d jumped the first two or three fences I could tell he loved it.
“I always thought Many Clouds had the build to be a National horse. He has that important blend of willingness to try hard allied to a certain cuteness. He is so clever with his jumping, just popping away, not wasting energy.”
At the heart of his belief that Many Clouds can win a second National is the knowledge that the horse has to carry only a pound more than last year. The handicapper did not damage his chances because he carried 11 st 9 lbs last year and has top weight of 11 st 10 lbs this time.
Sherwood explains, “That is very rare as returning winners nearly always have to carry a fair bit more weight. It helps that Many Clouds is a big strong horse used to carrying plenty of weight. My task now is to get him to Aintree in peak condition. I have faith in him big time. The dream is still alive.”
A disturbing statistic about modern
I always thought Many Clouds had the build to be a National horse. He has that blend of willingness to try hard allied to a certain cuteness
Grand National winners has finally been blown away these past few months. Not one victor in the race since Bindaree in 2003 had managed to win a single race anywhere until Pineau de Re, the hero of 2014, won a modest handicap hurdle towards the end of 2015. Now Many Clouds has also been back in the winner’s circle at Kelso after a series of solid performances against some of the best staying chasers in training.
Sherwood admits, “I’ve been wanting to get that particular monkey off my back, or should it be his back, all season, just to give us all a bit more confidence.”
Leighton Aspell has ridden Many Clouds in every one of his 24 races stretching back to his successful debut in a bumper at Wetherby in February, 2012.
Aspell, an outstanding horseman, returns to Aintree early next month seeking to win the Grand National for the third years in a row following Pineau De Re in 2014 and Many Clouds 12 months later.
Sometimes, late at night, he must thank his lucky stars that he decided to give himself a second chance as a jockey after walking away from the job in the summer of 2007 at the age of 31 when he felt his future in the saddle was probably behind him.
At the time he firmly believed his second place in the National on Supreme Glory was the best he would ever achieve.
He left the weighing-room without regret, and found work near his Sussex home as an assistant trainer for John Dunlop in Arundel.
At first he sensed he had made the right decision. But as the months passed and he looked through the paper each morning at the mounts that were once his, he began to have second thoughts. Nothing in life, he concluded, could match the challenge of riding over fences and the camaraderie of the weighing-room. There was unfinished business on the racecourse.
No wonder then that his old ally Oliver Sherwood was among the most vocal of his friends who urged him to make a comeback. Suddenly, after an absence of 17 months, he was back doing what he does best.
Looking back now at those troubled times he explains, “The summer months are normally a quiet period for me and in 2007 I didn’t have much of interest to ride. As I’d had a bad month or two and was a bit low I should probably have taken the summer off to freshen up.
“But instead I took the view that I wasn’t enjoying the riding anymore and looked elsewhere for something to do. I joined John Dunlop and enjoyed my time with him. But after a year with him I began to think of having another go as a jockey. There was life in the old dog. I still had some fire in my belly.
“I spoke to several people including Oliver and also Lucy Wadham and they were all very positive about the idea of my riding again. So eventually I reapplied for my licence.”
Aspell, now 39, rode his first winner over hurdles almost 21 years ago in May, 1995.With age and experience has come a belief that is unshakable in the saddle.In a race he is calm, relaxed and utterly reliable. These are qualities that helped him to his best total of 65 winners in 2013/2014.
That spring came the call to ride Pineau De Re for Dr Richard Newland,bright and energetic, a man prepared to challenge some of the time-honoured training methods of the past. The good doctor trains around a dozen horses at his home near Worcester while running an ever-growing medical business.
Many Clouds wins the National
Pineau De Re