SIt is the perpetual attraction of the Grand National that one in four adults in Britain has made a bet on this race, prospecting for gold in a minefield of a handicap of 40 runners. Few were lucky, judging by the quiet reaction at Aintree as Noble Yeats unleashed a 50-1 win. But that was the result of lowering the soul, not filling the wallet.
Earlier this week Sam Waley-Cohen had announced that this would be the last run of a career that he combined with the management of the £ 300 million dental business he founded. After winning a Gold Cup at Long Run in 2011, few expected him to wait on top to ride a long shot 11 years later. But the 39-year-old called for a run of patience and balance to lead Noble Yeats gradually into the race before hitting home a fence from the end to eclipse the 15-2 favorite, any Second Now, of two lengths.
To add another to this extraordinary story, Noble Yeats had been bought only by Waley-Cohen from his father, Robert, in February – and had come again with 24 runners in his last race at Cheltenham. Yet, on an Aintree day, a quiet miracle happened.
As a script, it would certainly be rejected by Hollywood for being too extravagant. Yet, after this victory, it did not seem entirely reasonable for Waley-Cohen to suggest that his “doppelganger” Dominic West could play him in a stellar film of this triumph.
It became an iron law of the Grand National that horses seven and under did not win. The last to do so was Bogskar in 1940, when the war was in mind, Aintree was full of military and sailors, and the title in the Manchester Guardian hailed a “Winner who has gone unnoticed”. More than 80 years later, that title could be happy to put it back into service.
Yet everything in Waley-Cohen’s story has had a touch of star dust. So far, she has been best known for having the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge recount their love affair after their separation in 2007 – so the couple tweeted their happiness after the race.
But winning the biggest steeplechase of all, four and a quarter miles of danger and drama in more than 30 jumps, will surely be over. “It’s a dream. I couldn’t believe it,” he admits, before praising his father and thanking his wife. “This is beyond words. It’s a fairy tale, it’s a fantasy. It’s just full of love, happiness and gratitude.”
Waley-Cohen also paid tribute to her brother Thomas, who died in 2004. “When you lose a loved one, you realize you have to make the most of life,” he said. “And also to try to put a lot of energy into it every day – like you never know if it will be your last.”
This has been the first National in front of fans since 2019, and from the stands and bars 70,000 people watched with delight and anticipation, determined to make up for lost time. All afternoon Aintree sang with a buzz coming free at a major sporting event.
The crowd cheered. People smiled. And most people drank, even if it was £ 5.80 for a can of Carling and £ 8 for a glass of wine, there was a price to pay on the bank balance and even the liver.
But while the course was soaked in the sun when the National started at 5:18 p.m., the appearance was misleading. Temperatures were firmly fixed in single figures, while the wind was strong and steep. Few out of the 70,000 crowd, however, were discouraged. This was a day when silk dresses surpassed running anoraks; of several stag and hen dos; a statement of the funniest and freest times after two years of a global pandemic.
The stories weren’t all positive, mind you. Earlier in the day, Elle Est Belle, a six-year-old mother, died of a suspected heart attack after finishing fourth in the new nine hurdles and Discorama was later revealed to have been shot dead after the Grand National.
Meanwhile, as Aintree began cleaning up, bookmaker Neville Porter reveled in her best Grand National Day for more than a decade. Her afternoon started off brilliantly as three underrated favorites, Edwardstone, Flooring Porter and Shan Blue, were all beaten. But the National was to provide even more wealth.
Before the race he told the Observer: “We’re looking for a winner 50-1 or bigger, since most people don’t support them, to hit the jackpot. But they don’t come very often.” Then he couldn’t stop smiling. “We hit the jackpot and then. It was a very good day.”
Waley-Cohen was also outraged as he confirmed that he had hung up his seat for a lifetime of meetings of Zoom and Microsoft Teams running Portman Dental Care. “It keeps me out of trouble,” he said. “It simply came to our notice then.
“I’ve been saying for centuries that if I win the Grand National, I’ll retire then. When you have a ride that goes well like that it’s wise to attack it.”
And who could blame it after that, the perfect ending?