Tony McCoy may now be less than 48 hours away from retirement but there was no easing off here on Thursday, no lessening of the intensity that has hallmarked his 20-year reign as National Hunt’s champion jockey. On a card that opens with four Grade One events, McCoy missed out in the first three as well-supported horses failed to run up to expectation, but he then came home clear aboard Jezki in the Aintree Hurdle, the most valuable race on the opening day of the Grand National meeting.
The stage seemed set for a battle between the finest National Hunt jockeys of this or any other generation as Jezki came down to the final flight alongside the favourite Arctic Fire, the mount of Ruby Walsh. A crashing fall for Arctic Fire turned the finish into a parade, however, as Jezki cantered home 13 lengths ahead of Rock On Ruby, also a former winner of the Champion Hurdle. Both Walsh and Arctic Fire emerged from the fall unscathed.
“With Arctic Fire falling it made the race a little easier,” McCoy said. “I’m glad that Ruby and the horse are all right. It was going to be a tight race, I thought 200 or 300 yards from the hurdle that Ruby might have me beat, and then 50 yards from the hurdle I thought I was sticking in there. Whether he’d have won or not I don’t know but he’d have made a fair race of it, that’s for sure.”
McCoy has made it clear that he will retire on the spot if his mount Shutthefrontdoor wins the Grand National on Saturday, and will ride on only until 25 April, when the National Hunt season ends at Sandown, if he fails to win the sport’s most famous race for a second time. For now, though, he remains as committed as ever to his life’s work of riding winners, and even hurled his helmet into the turf in disgust after falling from Ned Buntline, one of the favourites, in the Red Rum Chase later in the afternoon.
“I’m just trying to keep things as normal and concentrate on my job,” McCoy said after his win on Jezki. “I’ve still got a job to do. No doubt the worry and the thinking will be done on Saturday, when I walk out of here. I’m not sure if I want it to be the last time I ever ride or not. It’s a little bit mixed emotions, obviously I want to win the Grand National more than anything, but I don’t really want to retire. But I’ll take the Grand National if it’s going, that’s for sure, and then worry about retiring after that.
“It’s going to be a lot more difficult when I’m walking out [through the gates of Aintree] in the evening after I’ve finished riding, because that will be the end [of his riding career at the course]. It’s something that I never wanted to have to think about but if I don’t win the Grand National, there’s only two weeks left, so it’s gong to be a case of very mixed emotions.”
Success for McCoy on his final ride in the world’s most famous steeplechase would be a moment to rank alongside anything in Grand National history. While it has always been a storied event, however, the best tales are often of the unexpected, and with all eyes on McCoy, the National could easily conclude with an unpredictable twist.
Nina Carberry is one rider who could upstage the champion, and will go to post on Saturday aboard First Lieutenant attempting to become the first female jockey to win. She will hope to complete a remarkable double too, following a typically polished ride aboard On The Fringe to win the Fox Hunters’ Chase over the National fences on Thursday.
On The Fringe was sent off as the 5-2 favourite to follow up his success in the Foxhunter Chase at Cheltenham’s Festival meeting, and there was little doubt that he would do so from a long way out as Carberry cruised into contention with her mount pulling double. She eased On The Fringe into the lead on the run to the elbow and passed the line nearly four lengths clear of Pacha Du Polder after a race in which 16 of the 29 runners completed the course.
“He really enjoyed the fences and I was a little bit on the outside so I missed the chaos at the start,” Carberry said. “It was a very good performance and it helped me to get my eye in for Saturday. [First Lieutenant] is the right sort of horse for the race but it’s all about luck. If he’s there at the last then he’ll definitely have a right chance. He’s won around Aintree on good ground before, but I hope I haven’t used up all my luck already.”
Silviniaco Conti, the beaten favourite behind Coneygree in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham, returned to winning form in the Grade One BetFred Bowl, just as he did in the same race 12 months ago after a disappointing run in the Gold Cup. He jumped with real enthusiasm as Noel Fehily set a good pace and then beat off a series of potential challenges in the home straight, and is now likely to be campaigned away from Cheltenham next season.
“There’s the King George [at Kempton, which Silviniaco Conti has won for the last two seasons], there’s here and maybe Down Royal in the autumn as the starting point,” Paul Nicholls, the nine-year-old’s trainer, said. “It might be prudent to miss Cheltenham unless it was very fast ground. Not all horses necessarily suit all tracks, and I’d convinced myself that he would like Cheltenham because he’d run all right twice there, but Coneygree took him out of his comfort zone this year and I wouldn’t want that to happen again.
“His jumping was spectacular today. He’s the sort of horse that might end up like Neptune [Collonges, Nicholls’s 2012 Grand National winner], running one day in the National.”
Silviniaco Conti’s victory completed a Grade One double for Nicholls following the narrow success of All Yours, a 16-1 chance, in the Anniversary 4-Y-O Hurdle, in which McCoy was unplaced on the 4-6 favourite Hargam. The champion trainer’s Vibrato Valtat came up four lengths short in the opening Manifesto Novice Chase, however, as Clarcam made all the running under Ruby Walsh.