Leighton Aspell in action in 2017
Narraghmore jockey Leighton Aspell achieved the first of his back-to-back Grand National victories on Pineau de Rae in 2014 before his remarkable success on Many Clouds in 2015. On the week of the world’s greatest steeplchase, the Leinster Leader has retrieved this memorable archive interview where the jockey and his father Paddy reflect on that success.
It’s Tuesday morning in Pulborough, West Sussex - 50 miles from London.
The mobile rings.
“Are you down?” Leighton Aspell asks. “S**t, I missed your call there,” he follows. “I couldn’t find your number.
“I was hoping you’d contact me, I’m on my way to Chepstow. I’ve picked up a spare ride.”
It’s a little over five months since the 38-year-old rode Pineau De Re to victory in the Aintree Grand National but the journeyman’s road remains long — he is making a six-hour round trip to ride one horse.
“Can we do it tomorrow?” he asks.
“In the afternoon?”
So, 24 hours and a fourth place later...
“Listen, I want to apologise for the cock-up, I couldn’t find your number. I was hoping you’d ring.
To his peers in the Weigh Room, the Kildare man is the amiable seen-it-all pro who made a surprise return from retirement and went on to win jump racing’s greatest prize.
He left for England aged 15; convinced his parents that he was wasting his time in school and assured them the path he was choosing was the right one.
It helped that he was following in the footsteps of his father, Paddy; that he too would cross the water and work for Reg Hollinshead. But it would take lots of time to respect a quality his father learned in England and continues to lean on today — patience.
“Two months before you won the National, the Daily Mail wrote: ‘A series of televised victories on Saturdays have pitchforked the quietly spoken Irishman into the headlines as he continues his spirited comeback from self-imposed exile that left him depressed’.”
Is that true? I put the question.
Leighton Aspell: “It is, about the Saturday winners.
“When I decided to retire I was a little bit bored and a bit stale and the summer season had just finished. I had just lost my appetite for it.
“I should have just had a little break, had the summer off and started afresh. I stuck at it and enjoyed the job. But after six months I knew I’d made the wrong decision to retire and I was a bit embarrassed to go back and say I was wrong.”
What did you miss?
“It was the competitiveness of racing. The new job I was in I was riding three lots a day and good horses. Much as that was enjoyable I missed the competitiveness of racing.
“I started schooling for local trainers. They were being positive, so I got my licence again.”
Did you talk it over with anyone?
“The only people I talked it over with were the trainers. I didn’t want to come back for one/two days a week. Once I was confident that there was going to be enough rides to justify it, it was full steam ahead.”
I watched a re-run of the Grand National and yours must rank as one of the most understated victory celebrations.
[He laughs out loud].
“It was just disbelief. I’d done a light weight the race before and I was just properly tired. You’re just running through the last few seconds, to convince yourself. You don’t get much time to think at all.”
How optimistic were you?
“I wasn’t thinking of victory. I can’t say that. But I knew I was getting on a horse that finished third the week before in Cheltenham. I had schooled him about 10 days before and he felt great. The trainer’s [Dr Richard Newland] horses were flying and I thought: ‘Trouble free, I could have a really good ride around here and do really well.’”
At what point did you believe you could win it?
“I got to the Canal Turn and then I started to really believe.
“If I had jumped Valentines [Brook] and the next fence really well I’d have been there way too soon. So I almost had to show-jump the line of five just to halt my progress.
“It was just a question if the stamina would last. He winged the last two and whatever way the wind was blowing I heard the commentary when I got to the Elbow and I was six clear.”
Who was the first person you called?
“My family were all there, my wife Nicola and the kids, my Mam and Dad had flown over.”
There must have been lots of messages. Are there any that stick out?
“Yeah, from people I rode with when I was a 16- or 17-year-old that I’d completely lost touch with. They went to the trouble of getting hold of my number somehow and contacted me, people who had never made it, people whose lives had taken a different path.”
You convinced your parents to let you leave school at 15?
“I was [actually] pretty good at school. I liked school up until I did my Inter Cert. You could ride in Ireland when you were 15. My father had a licence on the Curragh. I could ride out as an apprentice and still go to school.
“Once I done my first couple of rides I really lost interest in school. My fifth year I found it hard work. Then when I got into my sixth year I had given up and I said I’d take a gamble on it and I went to the UK in January 1993.
“I was 18 months on the Flat. I had 10 rides in Ireland and then I joined Reg Hollinshead. I was 15/16 months on the Flat and then I got tall.”
How did that conversation with your parents go?
“My mother wanted me to finish school, but me and my dad wore her down. I was so disinterested that it was actually a waste of my time.”
You said before that when you have your fitness and your health you can be very positive about everything. Do you still feel that way?
“Well, I’m 38 now and I’m really fit. I’ve three young kids and I do cross-country running. I enjoy being fit. I’ve been fit for 20-odd years. I hate being unfit. I did it when I was a kid for the school and local clubs. It was a way of keeping fit but I really enjoyed it. You see jockeys running in the Weigh Room all the time and they hate it but I could put on my trainers and just run and run and run.”
What’s the longest distance you have done?
“I done the London Marathon. I did 19 miles and I was looking at a sub three-hour time when I broke down. I twisted my knee after a fall. I don’t know how many times I stopped. Then I said I’m going to do it. I had to walk the last six miles. I loved every second of it, before I was limping.”
Where did you go to school?
Is that where the love of running started?
“No, it was Crookstown Athletic Club where I went to national school. The coach was Charlie Lavin. He’s dead now. He ran the post office in Ballitore. He was the main coach.”
In 1998, you were wrongly suspected of race fixing and doping charges that were later dropped. Did you think about those times when you won the National?
“I never even gave it a second thought. It was so ridiculous, beyond belief. It is never mentioned and I promise you now, I never give it a second’s thought.”
Did you ever want to get back at the authorities who aroused the suspicion?
“It was just letting sleeping dogs lie. I’m sure everyone knows how badly it was handled. I should think there was great embarrassment on their part.”
You said that you found life away from racing difficult when you retired. But you are going to have to face those difficulties again?
“If I can get four or five more seasons out of it I will be in my early 40s then and I’d have had a good innings at it, made a good career out of it. I think I would accept it more then.”
It’s been a long career. Who has been the greatest influence?
“It has to be my dad, I was always by his side when I was a kid, it was always horses, every day.”
Paddy Aspell on his son’s 2014 Grand National victory
“He was always short a Saturday horse but he’d give a horse in a seller at Stratford the same ride as he gave Pineau De Rea in the National. He’d give a horse time to find his feet.
“I knew myself he had packed in the bridle way too early. He still had a lot to give and he would admit himself it was probably a rash decision. But it certainly didn’t do him any harm. He came back as fresh as paint and as keen as ever.
“I asked him ‘did you have any plan in your head?’ He said the only think he had planned to do, if he was in contention, was to jump the last fence in the centre. It would cut out aiming for the Elbow on a tired horse that you have drag around the Elbow. I don’t think, looking back at re-runs of Aintree, I’ve ever seen a horse to jump the last so perfect, and as clean and as neat and on such a good stride as they both did that day.”
“Walking into Liverpool, I just had a gut feeling that this was his year. Ironically his wife as well had an inner-feeling. Nicola, had to get there, and I think she had to change train three times to get there on the Friday, with kids from three to six years of age.”
“I watched the re-run many times and seen Richard Johnson and Tony McCoy and Paul Carberry, they were happy for him. It was the admiration they had for him - riding the winner of the race.
“I remember he left at about 6.30 that night to drive Nicola and the three girls home. He had to be up at 5.15am on Sunday morning to do the yard. He pre-trains some horses and then had to make his way to Market Rasen.
“He was very very much at home on a horse, far happier on a horse than he was sitting down doing homework. He never knocked one around, he never had to. He always rode with a long leg and a sympathetic hand. He still does.
“There is a place called Cloud 9 which you grew up hearing about and it does exist. I was there. I know I’m his father, but he is very sympathetic on a horse and he gives a horse time to find his feet in a race and gradually, gradually creep a horse into a race and he’s a great horseman. It was something I always thought he was due and deserved.”
“Winning the National was the ultimate success for a long hard, working career.”
In conversation with Robert Mulhern (This interview was originally published in The Irish Racing Yearbook). Robert Mulhern is a freelance journalist contracted to RTE's The Documentary On One