There’s More to Aintree Than The National

Kayley Woollacott with Lalor after victory in the Top Novices’ Hurdle

I don’t want to underestimate  the importance of the Grand National. It is an institution that transcends the sport. But it is a quirky kind of race, that dominates the meeting and can distract from how much more the three day Festival has to offer. And this year there was no event more poignant than Lalor’s triumph in the Grade 1 Top Novices’ Hurdle.

This time last year Lalor won the Grade 2 Champion Bumper at Aintree, leading to emotional scenes when trainer Richard Woollacott lead him back to the enclosure. Following Richard’s death in January at the age of 40, his wife Kayley Woollacott spoke profoundly and with dignity in the face tragedy. She highlighted issues surrounding mental health and embarked on fundraising for Mind, the Injured Jockeys’ Fund and Devon Air Ambulance. With a young daughter and a successful Point to Point yard, you could imagine that would be more than enough to juggle. But Kayley took over Richard’s licence and continued the work, albeit with a reduced number of horses. Her first win under rules came at Exeter on 8th April with The Kings Writ in a 3 mile Handicap Chase.

Following Lalor’s return to Aintree on Friday, Kayley’s response to the cameras after his win, was “It’s unbelievable – I don’t know how that just happened”. Well having spoken with Kayley in the week – as understated as she presents – I get the impression the answer is through hard work, determination and skilful planning. She was quick to praise the loyalty of  owner, Dave Staddon, to say how grateful she was to secure the services of Champion jockey, Richard Johnson – riding Lalor for the first time since victory at Aintree last year – and emphasise the importance of her staff. Whilst these are all valid points, I don’t think what she has achieved personally should be underestimated.

Lalor’s last race had been in February’s Betfair Hurdle at Newbury. A competitive Handicap run in testing conditions, he was placed 13th of the 20 finishers. Kayley said “He didn’t enjoy the ground, which effected his jumping”. He was subsequently schooled to work on speed, with a number of options considered for his next destination. She described the decision to “Go for the big one” as “a gamble”, but one which if it didn’t come off “would still leave us with a Novice Hurdler”.

The gamble certainly did pay off. And whilst I commented that I thought he looked beaten in the long run to the third fence from home, Kayley reflected he “ran the same race as in the Bumper… a little bit off the pace”.

As for the future, the plan is that Lalor will stay where he is and go Novice Chashing next season.

Yes, the Grand National is great, but an Elliott/Mullins one/two is nothing compared to the story of Lalor’s victory, which was one of endeavour and was as fitting as it was emotional.