Friday 27 July 2018

Grand National 1995: Royal Athlete

Jenny Pitman wrote her name indelibly into Grand National history when, in 1983, she became the first woman to train the winner of the illustrious steeplechase. Ten years after the landmark victory of Corbiere, though, she was denied a second National success when Esha Ness was first past the post in the “National that never was” in 1993. Nevertheless, the redoubtable “Mrs. P.” was back in the winners’ enclosure two years later, courtesy of the twelve-year-old Royal Athlete. 

Ironically, Royal Athlete had been backed into antepost favourite for the void National of 1993, having finished third in the Cheltenham Gold that year. However, by the time the 1995 Grand National rolled around, he had missed the whole of 1994 through injury and was considered something of a crock. In fact, he only ran at Aintree at the insistence of his owners, Gary and Libby Johnson, with Pitman preferring the Scottish Grand National at Ayr two weeks later. Consequently, at 40/1, he was only fourth choice of six entries trained by Jenny Pitman, behind stable companions Lusty Light, Garrison Savannah and Superior Finish. 

Pitman later reflected, “Royal Athlete was a horse with lots of class. He had been a very good staying hurdler, but the problem I had was finding a suitable rider.” In the end, she wasted little time in offering the mount to 24-year-old Irishman Jason Titley. She later recalled Titley riding work on Royal Athlete, saying, “By the time they had gone half a mile I knew he was the man for the job. It was poetry in motion watching him.” 

In the National, Royal Athlete raced in mid-division throughout the first circuit, before taking the lead at the second fence heading out into the country for the second time. He continued to dispute the lead with Master Oats until taking a definite advantage crossing the Melling Road for the final time, at which point he was hotly pursued by Party Politics, Over The Deel and Romany King. Try as they might, though, none of his pursuers could make any real impression and the supposedly fragile Royal Athlete was driven clear in the closing stages to win by 7 lengths. Party Politics, winner of the 1992 Grand National, finished second, with 100/1 outsider Over The Deel in third, a further 6 lengths away. 

Royal Athlete did, indeed, run in the Scottish Grand National, for which he started 7/1 co-favourite. However, there was to be no fairytale ending to his career; he was behind when pulled up four fences from home and was retired immediately afterwards.

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