As the anticipation grows for this year’s Randox Grand National, there is no doubting that there will be one huge void in the parade ring come 5pm on Saturday afternoon.
It will certainly feel strange to be at Aintree without Trevor Hemmings, who very much made the race his own in the past 25 years or so, having at least one runner in every single renewal this century.
That absence will almost certainly be felt most by Mick Meagher, Hemmings’ long-time racing manager who took up duties at Gleadhill House Stud in Lancashire back in 1999.
Meagher explained that it did not take long for Hemmings, who passed away in October last year, to outline his intentions. He explained: “When I joined, winning the Grand National was definitely a target.
“The first week I was here I went into the office with him and I asked what the long term plan was, as we were spending a good bit of money on young horses at the time. He replied: ‘I want to win the Grand National’ and I said he had no chance!
“He said he would put everything in place for us to have a go and that was as early as the first week I worked for him. I kind of had an idea of what I was looking for every time we went to the sales after that - something that would make up into a three-mile chaser.
“He just loved Aintree as a place and every year he’d be hugely excited and looking forward to the National, even last year when he couldn’t go due to the pandemic.
“He loved the hype around Cloth Cap being the favourite for the race and being talked about as being so well in at the weights - he was like a football fan looking forward to a European Cup Final. He just loved it.”
Hemmings’ first runner in the race was with Rubika back in 1992 and Meagher recalled that his fondness for the Grand National was a love affair that grew from his friendship with the businessman and holiday camp pioneer Fred Pontin – who himself won the race with Specify in 1971.
He laughed: “Fred Pontin said to him that he would never win one, so he had to prove his point and win three!”
Although success was just around the corner, progress was slow at first and 11 runners had represented Hemmings in the race before Hedgehunter was purchased in early 2003.
It was unusual, if not completely out of the ordinary, for Hemmings to buy horses who were already some way into their careers, but Meagher explained that it took merely one trip to Closutton to realise he had a serious horse on his hands.
He said: “Minty (David Minton) did a lot of work sourcing horses for the boss and he talked me into going and seeing Hedgehunter at Willie Mullins’ yard. He told me to go and sit on him and I just said he wasn’t good enough. He’d won a handicap chase at Punchestown off a mark of 115 and he said ‘just go and ride him!’
“I took a long weekend over to Ireland and went and rode him on a Saturday morning and bought him there and then. He just gave me a great feel and he was a good honest horse – sometimes you just get a feel for one and I really liked him.
“Willie said he’d sell him to us and the price was what it was as he had three people lined up to buy him the week after. I told the boss that I’d bought him and he was a bit shocked that I didn’t try to do a bit more of a deal! To his credit, he just said ‘you must have been keen’.”
Hemmings’ faith in his staff was rewarded and having fallen at the final fence in the 2004 renewal, Hedgehunter returned 12 months later to realise his owner’s ultimate ambition, winning the world’s greatest steeplechase by 14 lengths.
“It was some training performance by Willie,” Meagher explained. “We were happy with the mark we were going to get – which was in the low 140s – and we wanted to keep him there. Willie just ran him over hurdles and if you watched him you’d be wondering if he was sure.
“He was never much of a hurdler anyways and he was just running in them to keep him fit and well. He had five of these starts and then in his first run over fences he goes and wins the Bobbyjo Chase at Fairyhouse and ends up being the favourite for the National.
“As you know, he won the big race by 14 lengths and it was just a brilliant training performance - to have the confidence to keep him over hurdles and to put us all at ease - and he was right.”
Two more Grand National winners would follow, with Ballabriggs in 2011 and Many Clouds in 2015, making Hemmings the only man to own three different winners of the race - and the joint winning-most owner in the race’s history.
All three of those horses were purchased at different stages of their careers and there is no questioning that Meagher and Minton certainly have an eye for one at the sales. However, Meagher explained that Hemmings was hands on when it came to sourcing horses of the future.
He said: “He’d come to the sales with me and Minty and we’d narrow down the runners to a list. He’d like some and wouldn’t like others, while some he’d have to be persuaded into and some he just wouldn’t have and that was that.
“We were at the Goffs Land Rover Sales one year and I’d only starred up a couple of horses on the entire list. He took a look and straight away said ‘I’m not buying another Beneficial’ as we’d had a few and they had been disappointing.
“I rolled my eyes and walked off down the yard. Five minutes later I see the Beneficial going through for £45,000 and I asked someone in the yard who had bought him, to which I was told ‘Highflyer Bloodstock’. I came back up and saw Minty, who said ‘we thought we’d better bid on him or you’d sulk for the day’. That horse was Cloth Cap, so how’s your luck?!”
While Hemmings will not be at his beloved Aintree to see them, Cloth Cap and Deise Aba are set to race in his famous silks in the Randox Grand National this weekend.
Cloth Cap was pulled up when favourite for the race 12 months ago, but Meagher is adamant he should not be written off this time around.
He said: “Looking back to last year, you’d wonder how the heck Cloth Cap is 25-1 for this year’s race. His form hasn’t been brilliant this year, but he has come back down to a proper handicap mark now and I feel he’s where he should be after what he did (in the 2020 Ladbrokes Trophy) at Newbury.
“He never made a mistake when running in the race last year and seemed to be enjoying himself, then he displaced his epiglottis at Becher’s Brook and it was only a matter of time after that. He kept going for four or five fences, but once that happens you’re cooked really – it’s like someone pulling on the petrol plug. If it happens that far out in the National, you’ve no chance.
“He was operated on the following week and touch wood he’s been good since. He’s been running alright this year to his credit and he doesn’t have to be in front when he races either, so we’ll see.
“It would be great if we could have one even hit the frame this year, as it would show that we’re still doing the job right for him. They’re his horses and that’s what he would have wanted for them.”
On Deise Aba, Meagher added: “He’s in great form and he probably deserves to be a 66-1 outsider. He only seems to run his best races over fences at Sandown – which is the wrong way round and is different in complexion to Aintree – but he’s a good jumper and has plenty of ability.
“He’s not badly handicapped so you never know, it may just light him up a bit.”
Two of his Hemmings’ recently-retired big-race winners – 2020 Many Clouds Chase hero Lake View Lad and 2021 Ultima Handicap Chase winner Vintage Clouds – will also be present on at Aintree on Saturday to participate in the Parade of Champions before racing.
The Hemmings silks remain a regular sight on racecourses as horses continue to race for his estate and Meagher concluded: “We’ve got a grand bunch of youngsters coming through - I don’t think we’ve ever won as many novice hurdle races in a season. The majority will be going novice chasing next year and some of those are really quite nice.
“We don’t expect our novice hurdlers to be 150-rated over timber and all of our big race winners improved once they saw a fence as a rule. They never get overworked as youngsters, so to have as many novice hurdlers winning is great. Put it this way, if he was around he’d certainly be enjoying it!
“I find it very hard to change as I’m just moulded into the way the boss wanted to do things; they might have a run or two in a bumper or a point-to-point and then we go novice hurdling. Very few went handicap hurdling - they’d go novice chasing the following year and we’d see how good they were after that.
“It was great to have that sort of plan with horses, but these are as exciting a bunch that we’ve ever had, so we’ll see.”