Watch National hero Aspell win the Italian Champion Hurdle
Dual Grand National-winning jockey Leighton Aspell added a first Champion Hurdle to his CV on Sunday when landing the Italian version at Merano on Meny Bay.
Successful in the Aintree spectacular on Pineau De Re in 2014 and Many Clouds in 2015, and unique among jump jockeys in having an active fan club, Aspell was paying his first visit to Merano but was riding in the €60,000 Gran Corsa Siepi d’Italia for an old friend in Jaroslav 'Cico' Brecka, a successful Slovakian trainer who used to work in Britain and has kept in touch with friends here in the racing world.
Aspell said: "I knew the trainer when he was in the UK and he kept in touch with friends in Lambourn. He usually rides Meny Bay himself but couldn't do the weight and so got in touch through Oliver Sherwood's head lad. There wasn't much for me at Uttoxeter so I jumped at the chance."
He added: "Meny Bay had been very successful in smaller races in Slovakia, but this was a big step up for her. It was good, fast ground though, which she loved, and she was very well trained by Cico."
Despite having raced only over fences this year, Meny Bay adapted perfectly to the smaller obstacles, which Aspell described as a cross between hurdles and fences, and after racing to the fore throughout, the mare held the strong challenge of Hungarian raider Diplomata by a length and a half, with Czech-trained Playstarabad third.
Aspell described Merano, a spa town in South Tyrol, as "the most beautiful racecourse, surrounded by the Alps", and said that while the hurdles track is relatively conventional, albeit a figure of eight, the chase and cross country tracks are "like Spaghetti Junction".
Despite a variety of incentives, Merano has been only an occasional destination for British and Irish runners and riders, and Aspell is the first British jockey to win Sunday's race. Thousand Stars was well beaten in another race at Merano for Willie Mullins two years ago and the great New Zealand-bred hurdler-chaser Grand Canyon was also down the field there for Sussex trainer Derek Kent in 1976, although his stable companion Paemako Prince won on the Flat and over hurdles.
Sunday's card was dominated by runners from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and those of French trainer Guillaume Macaire.