For those like myself who are an avid fan of the unique challenge that the Grand National course offers to horses and riders, I am sure you were very sad to hear the news that the former Aintree stalwart Clan Royal has died aged 18 at JP McManus’s Martinstown Stud due to old age. Originally bred in France, he was trained in Ireland by Arthur Moore with some success which included a maiden hurdle and two chase victories. In 2002 he came over to England to be trained by Jonjo O’Neill with his debut run for the stable highlighting one of his big characteristics which was his free-going running style. This showcased the fact that he pulled like a train through his races and his riders had a hard job to settle him. Before his first trip to Aintree for the Topham in 2003, I was lucky enough to witness his last win over regular park fences at Newbury where he was probably slightly fortunate as the favourite Jasmin Guichois fell at the last. About an hour earlier on that same card, the Andrew Balding trained Gunner Welburn had won his Grand National prep in the feature three mile handicap chase in convincing style. Nobody in that Newbury crowd would have foreseen that the winner of the less competitive two and a half mile chase would have such an impact on the world’s greatest steeplechase. Fast forward four weeks and Clan Royal was a fancied 12/1 to run well off a light weight of 10-2 under Liam Cooper, a very capable jockey on his day. Jumping off just behind the leaders, you could see that he instantly revelled in this new challenge especially at the Chair where he stood off a mile and somehow cleared it. Some of the leaps on the way round showed that the demands had obviously given him a new lease of life with the manner of his style around the course. The confidence Cooper had in his mount was shown at Valentines and the fence after, with him taking lengths out of the field. Although, his enthusiasm at some points did have punters having heart in mouth moments with his exuberance especially with a mistake at the Foinavon fence. To test whether he could become a Grand National horse, connections decided the Becher Chase would be the ideal target. The race itself has been described by some as probably the best renewal and it’s hard not to see why. Fifteen set out for three miles three furlongs over 21 of Aintree’s daunting fences (The Chair was omitted due to the low lying sun) and only four finished in a race full of carnage. Initially, Clan Royal was held up by Cooper to get the trip. However by half distance, his jumping and general keenness had taken him to the front at Becher’s. He was left in front when Bindaree fell at Valentines but then was involved in a titanic battle up the home straight with the Ginger McCain trained Amberleigh House with Clar Royal showing tremendous battling qualities to just get up on the line. This confirmed him as a National possible with Bet Victor giving a 33/1 quote for the unlikely treble of Topham/Becher/National. On 3 April 2004 Clan Royal was sent off 10/1 co favourite of four for the National with stable mate Joss Naylor, Jurancon II and Bindaree. Liam Cooper was in no hurry early on with him being held up on the inside. He missed the melee on the outside of him at Becher’s first time although he was lucky himself not to fall as he landed steeply and almost lost his footing but Cooper picked him up from the floor and they carried on as if nothing had happened. For the rest of the first circuit, he travelled strongly into a prominent position with his fast accurate jumping. Going down to Becher’s second time, he began to tank along with his jockey trying to restrain him but however hard he tried, the horse’s exuberance would keep pushing him forward to join Hedgehunter who had forced an almost suicidal pace from the outset. A pivotal moment was five fences from home where Cooper dropped his whip after Clan Royal jumped the fence too low. It has been said that this cost Clan Royal the race; after the final fence when he nearly veered onto the Mildmay course due to his tiredness although to be fair to Liam Cooper, Amberleigh House flew home from a mile back to give Ginger McCain his fourth and last National after the three triumphs from Red Rum in the 1970s. Fast forward twelve months. A few things had changed with Liam Cooper announcing his retirement and JP McManus retaining Tony McCoy. Also of note that jumps season was the virus that hit O’Neill’s yard, so it was a testament to him to get Clan Royal to Aintree in tip top condition with only one appearance during the season. Unlike the previous year, the pace in the race was a sedate one which didn’t help the horse or rider in the slightest, with McCoy attempting throughout to settle him to no avail. He was in front by The Chair and set off out into the country in a similar fashion to the previous year. Arriving at Becher’s, he was confronted with two riderless horses that proceeded to run in front of the fence with the second of those Take The Stand taking him out of the race. Whether he would have won remains questionable as Hedgehunter was an impressive winner plus with him being so keen, a similar outcome to the previous year would have been likely. The following season saw Clan Royal more active with several racecourse appearances. Kept over hurdles again to protect his chase mark, he won his final start before Aintree at Market Rasen and at one stage looked likely to go off the shortest price favourite for the National in a long time. But his old rival Hedgehunter ran one of the best races of his career to be second in the Cheltenham Gold Cup behind War Of Attrition and they shared favouritism on the day as 5/1 joint favourites. To keep him calmer than in previous years, the use of earplugs helped him settle much better but when Ross Comm caused a false start by having his head over the tape, some of that preparation was wasted. In saying that, he did travel much more kindly through the race until a shocking mistake at the nineteenth fence from which both horse and rider did well to recover. Crossing the Melling Road he still had a chance but was outstayed by both Hedgehunter and the winner Numbersixvalverde. The costly mistake at the ditch left him with a cut on his stomach but connections felt their best chance of victory in the great race had slipped away from them. In his final season he was a shadow of his former self. He finished down the field in his prep run for the Becher Chase before taking an uncharacteristic fall at the first fence. A disappointing run in the Silver Cup gave connections the idea to send him hunting with JT McNamara, to freshen him up for one last bid at the Grand National. In 2007 he jumped round safely under JT to finish eleventh with Clan Royal being retired after the race. My generation have been blessed with some excellent Grand National horses with the likes of Amberleigh House, Hedgehunter, Comply Or Die and State Of Play who consistently ran their races around the course they loved. Although he never won the Grand National, one could argue that with some better luck he could have possibly been a dual winner of the race, but Clan Royal will always have a place in my memory with his enthusiasm for those special fences that I don’t believe has been matched by any other horse in my lifetime. RIP Clan Royal 1995 – 2013.
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