The 2012 John Smith’s Grand National produced the closest finish ever with Neptune Collonges prevailing by just a nose on 14 April, the shortest winning margin in the race’s 165 runnings.
The 11-year-old horse also became the first grey victor since Nicolaus Silver in 1961 and gave champion jump trainer Paul Nicholls a maiden John Smith’s Grand National victory with his 53rd runner in the world’s most famous chase. The landmark win sealed a seventh consecutive trainers’ title for Nicholls, who had trailed main rival Nicky Henderson by £150,000 going into the great race, which was worth a record £975,000. The win prize money of £547,267 transformed the situation.
Nicholls’ hopes of landing a first John Smith’s Grand National had seemingly been dealt a major blow in the build-up to the showpiece when the more fancied of his two entries, Niche Market, was sidelined by a tendon injury in March.
This left Neptune Collonges on 11st 6lb, near the top of the handicap. The top-class performer had in his pomp won three Grade One chases in Ireland and finished third to stablemates Kauto Star and Denman in the 2008 Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Neptune Collonges stepped back to handicaps after finishing eighth in the 2011 Cheltenham Gold Cup and, before coming to Liverpool, had been a fast-finishing second to Giles Cross in the Grade Three Betfred Grand National Trial at Haydock in February, having earlier performed well in handicaps at Ascot and Sandown.
Even so, Neptune Collonges was sent off a 33/1 chance by the bookmakers and paid over 46/1 on the tote.
A top-class field for the 2012 John Smith’s Grand National was headed by the previous month’s Cheltenham Gold Cup hero Synchronised, the first winner of chasing’s level weights championship contest to come on to Aintree since Master Oats in 1995. He was the top-weight with 11st 10ib and Ballabriggs, the 2011 John Smith’s Grand National hero, carried 1lb less.
Evan Williams was double-handed with State Of Play, who had made the frame in three previous renewals, and lightly-raced 10-year-old Cappa Bleu, while Nicky Henderson looked to have a good chance of winning his first John Smith’s Grand National with Shakalakaboomboom. Alan King, also going for his first John Smith’s Grand National success, was represented by impressive Betfred Becher Handicap Chase winner West End Rocker, while Victor Dartnall saddled Welsh Grand National runner-up Giles Cross.
The Irish challenge looked as strong as ever with Grade One scorers In Compliance and Rare Bob joined by Willie Mullins’ On His Own, 2011 Irish Grand National scorer Organisedconfusion and Noel Glynn’s Becauseicouldntsee.
Ted Walsh, successful with Papillon in 2000, saddled Seabass, partnered by his daughter, amateur rider Katie Walsh, and the improving nine-year-old, chasing a seven-timer, was back from 22/1 into 8/1 joint-favourite in the run-up to the race.
After two false starts, the 40 runners were sent on their way to the roar of 70,000-strong crowd with Giles Cross, Becauseicouldntsee, Swing Bill and Tharawaat leading the field over the first two fences.
Shakalakaboomboom pulled his way to the front under Barry Geraghty at the third, while Neptune Collonges was settled well away at the rear of the field by Daryl Jacob.
Planet Of Sound had established a clear lead over the 8/1 joint-favourites Shakalakaboomboom and Seabass jumping the Chair at the end of the first circuit of the Grand National course, with Neptune Collonges, Sunnyhillboy and On His Own working their way into contention.
On His Own fell at Becher’s Brook on the second circuit when very much in contention, bringing down According To Pete and leaving Neptune Collonges, Seabass and Hello Bud disputing third behind Planet Of Sound and Shakalakaboomboom who continued to duel for the lead jumping Valentine’s for the second time. They plus Seabass, Hello Bud, Neptune Collonges and Sunnyhillboy established a break over the chasing pack.
Rounding the home turn, eight horses were in contention after Ballabriggs and In Compliance latched on to the tail of the main group but Planet Of Sound began to drop back after his earlier exertions, leaving Shakalakaboomboom in the lead.
Seabass was driven to the front by Katie Walsh approaching the last as Shakalakaboomboom faded but Sunnyhillboy looked full of running under Richie McLernon. Neptune Collonges, just in behind the leading trio, was rousted along to maintain his position.
Sunnyhillboy, trained and owned like Synchronised by Jonjo O’Neill and JP McManus respectively, established a two-length lead halfway up the famous run-in but his stamina ebbed away in the final 50 yards and he could not resist the very late thrust of Neptune Collonges who went ahead in the final stride. There was a tense wait for the result of the photo-finish to be announced.
Katie Walsh became the highest-placed female rider in John Smith’s Grand National history after Seabass stayed on for third, while Cappa Bleu ran on strongly to take fourth under Paul Moloney. In Compliance took fifth, Ballabriggs ran well to be sixth as did veteran chaser Hello Bud in seventh.
“Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant! I wasn’t sure we had got there,” said elated Nicholls. “Neptune Collonges was running when the other horse was stopping and I thought the verdict could have gone either way.
“He got there at the right time and that’s what counts. This has been a race we haven’t had the best of luck in but it’s great to win. It’s a race everyone knows and everyone watches.
“If it hadn’t been for Denman or Kauto Star, then he’d have won a Gold Cup. He’s won two Guinness Gold Cups at Punchestown and been placed in a Gold Cup and no other horse apart from Synchronised had form like that.
“Gold Cup form counts for an awful lot. What a fantastic horse he has been and he will retire now. He’s probably the best horse we have run in the Grand National. I knew he’d stay and keep galloping.
“Ruby (Walsh) always just felt he was too old. I’m so chuffed for Daryl, he went the brave man’s route and little short cuts like that make all the difference. Daryl keeps getting better and better and when you have a second jockey like him things like that can happen.
“When (bloodstock agent) Anthony Bromley bought this horse from France, he said we’d be
disappointed when we saw him. I thought they were having a joke when he arrived because he was so narrow and only about 15.2 hands, a typical horse from France. I said I couldn’t let Mr Hales see him for a while and fed the horse up!
“I said to Nicky (Henderson) that I thought the championship was dead and buried for us after he won with Oscar Whisky today (the John Smith’s Aintree Hurdle) so it’s a surprise.”
For Jacob, appointed second jockey by Nicholls the previous season, victory in the world’s most famous chase aboard the horse he calls Nipper understandably was a career highlight.
“I just kept my head down and the horse kept grinding out the whole way to the line. I wasn’t sure where the winning line was but I knew that, inch by inch, I was starting to get there. Luckily enough, the line came and we just got there,” reflected Jacob.
“Nipper was very, very good – he got me out of trouble the whole way. He knew exactly what pace he was going and I just had trust him on it. I don’t think he missed a beat the whole way round and he loved it.
“I was comfortable enough that he was going to run a very big race because he is a class horse at the end of the day and you can never forget class.”
Shropshire-based John Hales has experienced the full spectrum of the highs and lows of ownership and he had no hesitation in announcing Neptune Collonges’ retirement following the victory.
“I am delighted for Paul and everyone who is part of the team down at Ditcheat. It’s a great team effort and I am just very glad and very lucky to be part of it,” said a tearful Hales.
“This is so emotional for me and he retires today. I just wanted to get him round safely but I never dreamed he would win. I thought the handicapper had given him 6lb too much.
“My wife Pat watched with Paul but I was on the move half-watching. My thought after he jumped the last was just ‘thank God’, he’s home and well.
“I have nothing against Aintree but, after what happened here in 1998 with One Man, the place has owed me one, so thank you Aintree.
“We had not thought about coming here but then he went to Haydock last time and, with a big weight and ground he didn’t like, I thought we were only going through the motions running there. But he ran a brilliant race. He would have won in a couple more yards and earned his right to come here.
“My family was split about running, my wife was 50/50 about coming and my daughter Lisa (Neptune Collonges’ co-owner) is show jumping in south Wales, although I think she might have jumped off when she hears what has happened!”
A maximum field of 40 lined up and 15 of the runners completed the course, with the winner getting around the four and a half miles in 9m 5.10s.