It was Rovers’ Roy racing
By Donn McClean
ON THURSDAY, AMATEUR jockey Sam Waley-Cohen said he would retire from racing on Saturday. That when he got off the back of Noble Yeats after the Randox Grand National that day – win, lose or draw – he would hang up his racing boots.
It was won.
The Grand National can tell the most fantastic stories. It’s a race that often takes what works in fiction and sees if it will work in reality.
Perhaps there is a story lurking behind nearly all Grand National contenders that 39 of the 40 horses are simply untold. But we had the setting for this story in advance, and we knew when it would end, just before 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, we just didn’t know how.
If a novel ended like this, you’d put the book down and say, no, too whimsical, too wacky, too idyllic. Rovers’ Roy is racing. And yet it happened, because that’s what the Grand National does.
Even the day before yesterday, Sam Waley-Cohen’s record on the Grand National fences was quite remarkable. Amateur rider, and yet no jockey who currently rides has won more times than him over the tall spruce hedges.
The Fox Hunters on Katarino twice and on Warne once, the Topham Chase on Liberthine and Rajdhani Express, the Becher Chase on Oscar Time. He had already come close in the Grand National – second on Oscar Time in 2011 and fourth on the same Oscar Time in 2013 – and he had won the Gold Cup once and the King George twice on Long Run, but he didn’t had ever won the Grand National. Till today.
Noble Yeats en route to victory at the National.
The story of Noble Yeats also has its roots in disbelief. He is a young horse, too young for the Grand National, according to the statistics. He is only seven years old and, the day before yesterday, no seven-year-old had won the Grand National since Bogskar won it in 1940.
He only won his bumper in January 2021 and he won his first obstacle in March 2021.
He didn’t make his first run on the fences until last October, and six months later won the Grand National.
In fact, he only qualified for the Grand National two months ago. These days you have to finish in the top four of a chase for three miles or more before you’re allowed to race in the Grand National, so Emmet Mullins took Noble Yeats to Wetherby in February for Grade 2 Towton Chase.
It’s a novice hunt that doesn’t usually attract many runners. This year there were only four contenders, so Noble Yeats only had to skip a clear round to achieve his goal.
As it happened, he put in a great performance to finish second to Friday’s Mildmay Chase winner Ahoy Senor, but it was a typically smart placement from the young trainer.
Emmet Mullins had never had a rider in the Grand National as a trainer until yesterday, but he has been in the race before.
It was in 2005 that his mother wouldn’t allow him to go to Aintree with Hedgehunter, who was trained by his father’s brother, Willie Mullins, and won the National that year doing knockdowns. (And he felt he could have easily gone, despite all the study that was done.)
He raced once, in 2009 he rode in Chelsea Harbor for another uncle Tom Mullins.
He didn’t get past the third fence in 2009, but the experience was not lost on him.
He remembers that before the start, he watched the first fence with his horse and heard the crowd, felt the atmosphere. He knew he was part of something special.
He wasn’t just part of something special today, he was center stage. Emmet Mullins had great days in the past as he quietly made a name for himself as a shrewd racehorse trainer.
Jockey Sam Waley-Cohen after winning.
Like when he took Cape Gentleman to Kempton in February last year and won the Grade 2 Dovecote Hurdle, like when he won the Paddy Power Plate at the Cheltenham Festival last year with The Shunter. But none of them were the Grand National.
Not everything was easy either. Noble Yeats didn’t get away quickly, he was one of the last horses to jump the first fence, and he was on the outside.
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Sam Waley-Cohen allowed him to find his rhythm though, and he gradually progressed across the pitch and inwards so that by the time they jumped The Chair and The Water and raced past the stands with a full circuit to cover, he was in contention for sixth place and was traveling well along the interior.
That’s when the coach thought, now we’re in a winning position.
Noble Yeats closed in on the fourth fence on the second homer, and he nodded a bit as he landed on the fifth final fence, but he never lost that running pace.
His rider allowed him to cross Anchorbridge Crossing and around the house, and he kept him on the bridle until they landed over the last fence and were challenged by Any Second Now and Mark Walsh.
It was only then that Waley-Cohen asked his horse for his effort and, when he did, Noble Yeats responded.
Gelding Yeats craned his neck of his own free will and held firm to the line, where he was two and a quarter lengths ahead of Any Second Now, who continued the match, with the pair of them clear.
It was tough on relations for Any Second Now, owner JP McManus and trainer Ted Walsh, third in the race last year, second this year, but at least the owner and trainer had already had that winning national experience.
Plus, Ted Walsh, whose son Ruby ridden Papillon to victory in 2000, would have known exactly how Noble Yeats owner Robert Waley-Cohen felt watching his son ride his horse to national victory.
Noble Yeats was only acquired by Robert Waley-Cohen in February and has only raced under the owner’s colors once before today.
It was the genesis of a well thought out plan, the beginnings of a remarkable story, a story that came to a fantastic conclusion in Aintree today.