Rider left at lowest point as triumph turns to awful tragedy
Leighton Aspell on Sunday spoke of his distress at having Many Clouds collapse and die on the track at Cheltenham moments after defeating Thistlecrack in the finest performance of the Grand National hero's career.
Aspell said he was so elated by the victory over the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup favourite in the Cotswold Chase that he could not wait to share his pride with television viewers and a huge crowd around the winner's enclosure.
But in less than a minute his delight turned to despair as Many Clouds, victorious at Aintree in 2015 for owner Trevor Hemmings and trainer Oliver Sherwood, went down beneath him and died of a suspected heart attack.
"It was very distressing," he said. "Even though I have had two Nationals wins and a Hennessy win I was at my happiest for those 30-40 seconds because it was just an immense performance. I couldn't wait to speak to Oli Bell [ITV Racing presenter] and tell him how proud I was and how much we all loved this horse.
"He was going to come back in to a huge reception that he deserved and then suddenly it was like somebody pulling the mat completely from under your feet. You are at your lowest then."
Aspell rode Many Clouds in all of his 27 starts, the pair sharing their biggest successes at Aintree and at Newbury in 2014, when they won the Hennessy Gold Cup.
Saturday's performance topped even those as the ten-year-old battled back up the hill to inflict a first career defeat over fences Gold Cup favourite on Thistlecrack.
"The performance he put up yesterday was a career-best and highlighted all his qualities, jumping, staying and guts," Aspell said.
"I had never ridden against Thistlecrack. Thistlecrack was mightily impressive in the King George. We knew where we stood regarding Smad Place and Silviniaco Conti, but were into the unknown with regards to Thistlecrack.
"All I could do was go out, ride my race and if Thistlecrack came to me hard on the steel I couldn't do anything about that. After riding in the earlier race I could tell how difficult horses were finding it jumping out of the holding ground. It was going to take a supreme effort to win on the bridle."
The jockey conceded Thistlecrack appeared to have the edge as they went into the last fence but said: "You're trying to conserve energy by holding him together. Tom [Scudamore] did look like he was holding on to more than me. We jumped the last together and he got briefly in front of me, but in the last 100 yards it turned."
A photo was called before Many Clouds was awarded the verdict by a head, but celebrations were then cruelly cut short.
Aspell said: "We had walked around. He had cleared. I had briefly spoken to Oli Bell and he seemed okay. A few jockeys said their congratulations and were making their way down the walkway and for 30-40 seconds he seemed absolutely fine. Then he took a turn for the worse."
After his Grand National victory, and after another win at Kelso in March last year, Many Clouds suffered post race ataxia, a syndrome that causes horses to become unsteady as a result of rising body temperature after exertion.
Saturday was different, said Aspell. "He was quite stressed when he was overheating and having a wobble in the past, but you've seen the pictures on TV or in the Racing Post – his ears were pricked, he was walking round bright-eyed and then suddenly it just changed. It happened incredibly quickly."
'He just had the whole package'
Paying tribute to his partner, he added: "Many Clouds is way above anything else I have ridden. Probably on ratings he is going to go up close to 170.
"He just had the whole package. He had physical strength, mental strength, ability and guts. It's so weird to have all of them together at the same time in a racehorse.
"The more you ride them you appreciate how rare it is. You can get an average horse with lots of guts who can win races who you really enjoy riding or those who are very talented at home but don't have the stomach for a fight and never achieve their potential. But he kept turning up and producing again and again.
"I have great memories. I have ridden him in every race and he was a great jumper. The boys in the weighing, everybody wanted to have a spin on Many Clouds. He was an absolute joy to ride."