The “noughties” brought in the dawn of another new and exciting time. It was also a decade of truly memorable moments throughout the sport of horse racing. But what of the Grand National? The biggest race of them all? Well, there was no shortage of racing history written there too.
2000 Grand National – PAPILLON
It’s not just chronology that sees us start with Papillon – it is fitting to kick off with the race that announced the arrival of arguably the finest horseman and race rider of a generation, Ruby Walsh. An unheralded 33/1 shot on the morning of the race, trained by a small stable in Ireland, and ridden by a young Ruby, Papillon was backed into 10/1 and duly obliged for his multitude of supporters. As would soon become his calling card, a shrewd, energy-saving, perfectly-paced ride saw Papillon cruise his way through the race to land consecutive Grand Nationals for Ireland a year after Bobbyjo ended a 25 year wait for the Irish. The postscript to the race shed light on the scale of the public gamble with bookmakers suffering one of their worst ever single-race results, rumoured to have cost them over £10m – much to the joy of punters.
2001 Grand National – RED MAURADER
Returning the next year, Papillon could not have faced a more starkly different challenge as he attempted to defend his National crown. The unique and extreme test of the Grand National has rarely been so unique and extreme. Horrendous conditions combined with an incident-packed running was too much for the Walsh family’s bid for a repeat. Papillon was one of all bar four runners that failed to complete and two of those were remounted. Red Marauder was left to come home alone, furlongs ahead of second placed horse, Smarty. It was a year that exemplified the National’s unpredictability. The conventional wisdom is that you have to be an exceptional jumper to win the race, but this threw a winner that had fallen the previous year, made several blunders, and jockey Richard Guest described him as “probably to worst jumper to ever win a national.”
2004 Grand National – AMBERLEIGH HOUSE
There is surely no trainer who is more interwoven into the fabric of the race than Ginger McCain. His first victory (of four) in the race came with Red Rum in 1973, the race that will go down as the greatest Grand National of all time, breaking the 40-year-old track record, beating Crisp (carrying 23lbs more than any other horse) and L’Escargot (two-time Gold Cup winner). But nearly thirty years later and Ginger McCain hadn’t had another winner of the race since Red Rum, until Amberleigh House came from the clouds under an inspired Graham Lee ride to collar long-time leaders Clan Royal and Lord Atterbury. A record-tying fourth win for a rags-to-riches trainer at the end of his career, it was a day of high emotions. All of this makes it the stuff of Aintree legend, but even if it weren’t for that, it would make the list purely on the grounds of commentator Jim McGrath accidentally calling the horse “Gamberly House” on commentary as he crossed the line.
2005 Grand National - HEDGEHUNTER
For every Grand National winner, there are a multitude of near misses in behind and after falling at the last the year before, having led for most of the race, 2005 saw the redemption for public-favourite Hedgehunter. Sent off as 7/1 favourite, the now legendary duo of Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh claimed their first and second victories in the race respectively. It was also the first win for owner Trevor Hemmings, who was to go on and taste victory twice more with Ballabriggs and one of racing’s favourite horses, the ill-fated 2015 winner Many Clouds. It was a dominant victory that appeared to never be in doubt, which can only speak to the greatness of Ruby Walsh who masterfully contended with everything that was thrown at him, including losing an iron the fence before Bechers Brook on the final circuit.
2007 Grand National – SILVER BIRCH
Did anyone back that? Who is this Gordon Elliott? Who is this Robbie Power? Imagine asking that now? But at the time you’d have forgiven the casual fan for asking this. In reality, there were more than a few seasoned British racing fans asking themselves the same questions following Silver Birch’s unheralded victory. Gordon Elliot, then just 29, in his first year of training, and without a win to his name in Ireland, had bought the horse for 20,000gns from Paul Nicholls earlier in the season. In a route that is now legend courtesy of the incomparable Tiger Roll, Silver Birch had previously run at Cheltenham, finishing second in the Cross Country, before going on to triumph by just ¾ of a length in the greatest race of them all. However, the biggest loser of the day was the Ward Union Hunt in County Meath, who were likely severely short-staffed as two of their whipper-ins, Gordon and Robbie, were now fast on their way to racing stardom.