Hedgehunter hero in thriller

All the talk beforehand was of whether Carrie Ford would rewrite the history books on Saturday and become the first woman to ride the winner of the John Smith's Grand National.

All the talk beforehand was of whether Carrie Ford would rewrite the history books on Saturday and become the first woman to ride the winner of the John Smith's Grand National.

It was not to be in the end, although she lost little in finishing fifth in the world's greatest steeplechase behind runaway winner Hedgehunter, who stole the limelight and continued the recent domination of the top jumping prizes by Irish-trained runners.

A tired last-fence faller 12 months ago, there were no such problems this time around for the Willie Mullins-trained nine-year-old, who was left in the lead after drama at Becher's Brook on the second circuit.

Champion jockey Tony McCoy was fairly tanking along in front on Clan Royal, only to be sandwiched between two riderless horses - Merchants Friend and Take The Stand - and unseated unceremoniously as his mount was carried out.

Ruby Walsh and Hedgehunter did not have any cause for concern from then on, and the pair drew readily clear from the second-last to beat Royal Auclair by 14 lengths.

But it was only after seeing his charge pass the winning post that Mullins was able to admit: "Last week I had an awful scare - he had a bit of a runny nose. But I had a word with his groom and we didn't say anything to anyone and we took our chance.

"I was holding my breath over the last hoping that nothing would come out of the clouds to get him, but I knew that Ruby was going to try and keep something up his sleeve for the run-in."

The gelding would land a £250,000 bonus for connections should he follow up his success in the Betfred Gold Cup at Sandown on April 23, for which the sponsors make him a 7-1 chance.

However, the Bagenalstown-based handler warned: "The Betfred might be a bit quick. I'm looking at the French Gold Cup (Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris on May 29) as well so we'll just see time-wise how he recovers."

The result was a dream come true for his owner Trevor Hemmings, the millionaire businessman whose vast empire includes Blackpool Tower, but has endured some wretched luck in his previous 12 attempts to win this race.

"I'm not a big punter, but I did have a little on a long time ago at 40-1," he said. "When he fell last year in the race I did wonder whether I was ever going to win it."

With the Irish, Welsh and English Nationals already in the bag, Walsh is set to partner Cornish Rebel at Ayr next Saturday in a bid to land an unprecedented grand slam.

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