Jonathan Pow­ell talks to the owner and jockey of Grand Na­tional favourite Many Clouds

Racing Ahead - - BIG INTERVIEW -

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

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