Jockeys past and present took time out today (Friday 8th April) on the eve of the Randox Grand National to visit youngsters at Liverpool’s Alder Hey Children’s Hospital.
The visit is part of a long-standing partnership with The Jockey Club and Aintree Racecourse, which this year celebrates its 20th year.
With the 2020 trip cancelled due to Covid-19 and last year’s event taking place virtually over Zoom, current and retired members of the weighing room made the journey to the Liverpool-based hospital along with 2012 Grand National winner Neptune Collonges for the first time since 2019.
While there, they were taken to see the work taking place on Sunflower House, which is the new mental health unit being developed at the hospital before having pictures taken with residents, staff and parents and Neptune Collongnes.
To mark the milestone visit a glass bowl was presented to The Jockey Club on behalf of the Alder Hey Children’s Charity in front of the ongoing Sunflower House project which is due to be completed later this year.
Reigning champion jockey Harry Skelton, who was joined by his wife and fellow jockey Bridget Andrews, said: “I’ve been coming here a few years now and it is a true eye opener really.
“We’ve missed a couple of years but it was great to come back and see the new building go up.
“The investment they are putting into Alder Hey to a new mental health ward and the support given to the kids is second to none.
“Seeing Neptune Collonges here today at 21 years old is unbelievable. The Hales family have supported this so well through many years and it is a credit to them.
“Seeing the kids coming out here today - it is like they have got another Christmas really. They come out smiling with a spring in their step and they absolutely love it.
“I think it is an hour well spent in my year. It is a pleasure to see rand give them a bit of happiness.
“We are fortunate as we sometimes take life for granted but you see these kids and they are some of the bravest people going.”
Among those also in attendance was champion jockey-elect Brian Hughes, who described the experience as “humbling”.
He said: “It is quite humbling and it probably hits home more when you have your own kids when you see what these families are presented with. If we can make their morning a little bit better we are the ones that are lucky to do that.
“We do a job day-to-day that is basically our hobby - these people here have got difficult scenarios in front of them which is very hard for them.
“It is great seeing everyone here and they enjoy seeing the old horse here. It is every parents’ worst nightmare that their children gets a serious issue or illness and it is very humbling for us to come.”
Former jockey Mick Fitzgerald, who is a partron of the charity, has been a big supporter of the project since its inception in 2002.
The Grand National winner-turned broadcaster said: “I always say with this that this is a wake-up call. What these kids have to put themselves through makes you realise this is what is important.
“Life is precious and for some of these kids it’s really precious. Now that I have kids you actually imagine what it would be like to have a child here and it would be very scary - that is why I say to all the lads take it all in as it makes you realise what really matters.
“I’ve been involved in this trip and getting the lads to come for a long time. When you are a jockey you are a hamster on a wheel.
“When you come to something like this it makes you get off it and realise the outside world is huge and there are things in life that are more important.
“I feel if we can do anything to help no matter how small it has to be a good thing. To see the kids’ faces when they see Neptune Collonges is great.”
Like Fitzgerald his former weighing room colleague, and now retired dual Grand National winning rider Ruby Walsh is another keen to underline the importance of the jockeys’ visit.
He said: “I’m a parent and no one wants to be in a children’s hospital but they are an absolute necessity and is there a better one in Europe than Alder Hey? Probably not.
“Every time we come back they building something else and taking it forward like with the Sunflower House, which is incredible.
“If The Jockey Club and the jockeys can help support that and the funding and building of it then that is brilliant. The work people here do is incredible.
“Children’s hospitals like this put a lot of concerns and thoughts in your own life into perspective.
“A lot of jockeys have been big supporters and The Jockey Club have been huge in helping set this up and long may it continue.”
The biggest attraction for many of the patients is being able to get close to Neptune Collonges, something his owner John Hales admits always brings a smile to his face.
He said: “Neptune hasn’t been here for a couple of years but he loves coming here.
“We bring lots of Polo mints as the children love feeding them to him and he is so good with the children. It makes it all worthwhile for me seeing the smile on the children’s faces.”
Among those to feed Neptune Collonges was three year old Jamie Clarke, who is from nearby Kensington and is currently undergoing treatment for cancer.
His mum, Ashley Hughes, said; “It is dead good for Jamie as being in hospital you don’t get to see much. We’ve been coming in and out since Jamie got his kidney cancer diagnosis in January.
“He has just finished radiotherapy and he now has his chemotherapy to do now but he is doing well.
“We ran down here to see the horse. If they do stuff like this it makes the kids feel like they are not in hospital and Jamie loves it if he can get off the ward. He loved feeding him a Polo mint.”
Another excited patient to meet the gelded son of Dom Alco was Blackpool-based 10 year old Ammaya Knowell, who has recently had a hip reconstruction due to a serious condition.
Mum Karen Knowell said: “Ammaya has what is called Perthes Disease where the blood supply stops going to the hip bone so it just crumbles.
“She has had to have a hip reconstruction and she will have to have a complete hip replacement when she is 15 as unfortunately the condition won’t go away.
“Ammaya loved meeting Neptune (Collonges) for the first time. It is a really good things for the kids to come down and see him instead of being stuck in the ward looking at the same four walls.”
Last year Lydia Barker was the honorary 41st runner in the Randox Grand National but was denied the chance to experience the event due to the Covid-19 restrictions in place 12 months ago.
The 21 year old, who hopes to work at the hospital in the future as a paediatric nurse, said: “It was a bit surreal last year being the 41st runner as I was at university and I watched it on television.
“It was really exciting to be recognised as part of the work Alder Hey do and coming through as a patient. I’m now training to become a paediatric nurse.
“I didn’t come into hospital until I was 15 right through until just after my 18th birthday. I’ve had loads of different treatments but it has led to me be where I am now and help other children.
“I’m coming to the end of my second year at Edge Hill University but hopefully when I finish I’ll be able to work at Alder Hey.
“It is still exciting to see Neptune Collonges even though I’m a bit older it is still exciting seeing all the kids with the horse.”
Organisers from the hospital were pleased to see the event taking place in person for the first time since 2019.
Fiona Ashcroft, CEO of Alder Hey Children’s Charity, said: “We were delighted to welcome The Jockey Club today and celebrate our incredible 20 year partnership with them.
“It is the first time we have been able to welcome them at the hospital for three years because of the Covid restrictions.
“Our children and young people and staff were thrilled to meet Neptune Collonges and bring that Grand National magic to Alder Hey.”