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Neptune glory marred by tragedy
A thrilling victory for the Paul Nicholls-trained Neptune Collonges in the John Smith's Grand National at Aintree was tinged with sadness after Cheltenham Gold Cup hero Synchronised lost his life during the race.
There was a pulsating climax to the four-and-a-half-mile marathon, with Neptune Collonges (33-1) getting up by a nose in the hands of Daryl Jacob to give champion trainer Nicholls his first National victory, and with it surely another trainers' title.
Jonjo O'Neill's Sunnyhillboy was the horse denied under Richie McLernon and while that was a disappointment for connections, there was devastating news to come after his stablemate Synchronised's fatality was confirmed after a fall at Becher's Brook. Malcolm Jefferson's According To Pete was reported as another fatality later in the race.
Neptune Collonges was becoming the first grey to win the world's most famous steeplechase since Nicolaus Silver in 1961. Last month's Kim Muir winner Sunnyhillboy looked set to triumph rounding the famous Elbow, but Neptune Collonges got up in the last stride.
For a long way it looked as though Katie Walsh could become the first woman to win the race on the well-supported joint-favourite Seabass, but he had nothing left on the run-in and had to make do with third. Cappa Bleu finished fourth, with In Compliance fifth and last year's winner Ballabriggs sixth.
A clearly overcome Jacob said: "You can't beat this. I was on a tough horse and I said to Paul that one day I would ride you a National winner. That was two years ago and now I've done it."
Nicholls added: "He's probably the best horse we've run in the race. He's got great form, he's been placed in Gold Cups, he stays, he's genuine and Daryl gave him a fantastic ride when you analyse where he went. It's absolutely brilliant. It's blown Nicky Henderson out of the water now (in the trainers' championship)."
Winning owner John Hales had mixed emotions as One Man, probably the best horse he ever owned, was killed in a fall at this meeting in 1998, though not in the Grand National.
Hales, who announced the immediate retirement of Neptune Collonges, said: "When he crossed the line I thought he might have got it. My first thought was if he has got it Paul has won the trainers' championship. And then I thought thank you Aintree - you know why, many years ago.
"It split the family coming here. My wife was 50-50, my daughter couldn't face it. She has gone show jumping and is overcome with emotion. We've nothing against Aintree. We love coming here and this year we've come up trumps."