Sam Waley-Cohen, the 39 year-old English amateur jockey, enjoyed the ultimate racing fairytale after winning the Randox Aintree Grand National in his final ever ride on the 50-1 Irish outsider Noble Yeats.
Co Carlow based Emmet Mullins, the 31 year-old nephew of champion trainer Willie Mullins, enjoyed a career highlight when landing the world's most famous steeplechase with his first ever runner in the race.
Inevitably though the focus was on Waley-Cohen, carrying the colours of his father Robert, who summed up the most unlikely scenario just moments after passing the post - “You couldn’t make it up, could you!”
Having announced earlier in the week that Noble Yeats would be his final career ride, Waley-Cohen pulled off the perfect farewell.
Just days from turning 40, Waley-Cohen, a successful businessman who owns a chain of dental practises, and who’d previously won the 2011 Cheltenham Gold Cup on Long Run, became the first amateur in 32 years to win the National.
Noble Yeats proved too strong for the 15-2 favourite Any Second Now in the closing stages with an Irish one-two-three completed by Delta Work in third. Santini was fourth at 33-1 at the finish of an incident-packed race.
Last year’s winner Minella Times and Rachael Blackmore were casualties, falling at the ninth fence, Valentines, on the first circuit. The well-backed Run Wild Fred fell at the previous obstacle, the Canal Turn. Just 15 of the 40 runners finished with no reported injuries to any of the field.
But in a race with a rich history of throwing up remarkable tales, the synchronicity of announcing your retirement and then enjoying the perfect ‘adieu’ in the greatest race of all on a rank outsider, was a storyline that all but beggared belief.
“That is beyond words, it’s a fairytale, a fantasy,” the winning jockey gasped afterwards. “We came here thinking the sun’s out, it’s your last ride - go and have a nice spin, no expectations. It’s a dream.”
Noble Yeats was the first seven year-old horse to win since 1940 and the 29th Irish trained winner of the race.
Mullins has carved out a reputation as a shrewd young trainer since first taking out a licence in 2015 with bookmakers having learned to fear the former Cheltenham festival winning jockey. However Mullins proved a saviour for the layers on Saturday.
Neither Any Second Now or Delta Work were prominent for much of the race but came to the forefront with two to go and it looked set to be a ding-dong battle between the pair of fancied big guns.
However Noble Yeats, having just his 12th career start, proved impossible to overcome, rallying after being headed by Any Second Now on the way to the Elbow, and ultimately won by two and a quarter lengths.
“It’s a dream. It won’t sink in for weeks. It’s beyond words,” Waley-Cohen said afterwards when holding his two children, and remembering his late brother Thomas who died of cancer. “There’s a lot of love and gratefulness.”
The jockey had previously finished runner up in the National on the Irish trained Oscar Time in 2011 and boasted a superb record over the National fences in other races with half a dozen victories.
The Waley-Cohens bought Noble Yeats in February although Mullins had been targeting the horse at the National all season.
“It was a long-term plan and it seems to have come off in the end somehow,” the trainer said. “We were probably more confident a month ago. The closer we got to it, everyone else seemed to be talking up their chances and we went cold.”
It was frustration again for the Any Second Now team who had been third in 2021 and momentarily looked to have the race won this time.
“To get that close, it’s a sickener,” admitted his trainer Ted Walsh.
“But equally it’s great for the Cohen family and seeing the father going down the track to meet his son in tears.
“Mark (Walsh) said he missed the break but jumped and travelled well. I thought jumping the last he might get there but the other horse outstayed us from the Elbow.
“I’ve seen a lot happen from the Elbow including Crisp getting caught by Red Rum. Unfortunately for us the post is another 100 yards away and that’s where you get paid,” he added.
Gordon Elliott felt Delta Work was a little novicey at his fences.
But if it was officially an Irish trained winner, it still felt a very English occasion with the focus on the retiring jockey whose friendship with the duke and duchess of Cambridge was underlined by a congratulatory tweet from the pair.
Not surprisingly Waley-Cohen isn’t going to reverse his decision to retire.
“Thinking about doing this again is fool’s gold - I’ve made up my mind, I’ve had the dream ride, and what a way to go out.
“I’ve always believed . . . but I could barely hope. I never really bought the seven-year-old story. I thought a seven-year-old could win, because not many seven-year-olds run in it, so there aren’t many stats, but you can talk yourself into anything when you’re sitting on a seven-year-old.
“I’ve only really sat on him three times - once at Emmett’s, once at Cheltenham and once today. I learnt a lot about him at Cheltenham, and I think without that ride at Cheltenham I wouldn’t have had that ride today.
“We were looking for a horse - we were going to run Jett, but he wasn’t going to stay the trip. We’d gone up to Wetherby for a hunter chase and we saw Noble Yeats run, and thought, ‘that’s an interesting one, and he’s qualified for the National now - I wonder if they might be interested in doing something’.
“We went and spoke to Emmett, and really liked him - he’s a great trainer - and we thought, ‘why not? Let’s have a crack at it’, and one thing led to another.
“I’ve been so lucky with all the horses I’ve ridden, and in a way, all those rides built up to today; you keep learning, experience, background - if I hadn’t had those days where things haven’t gone right, I wouldn’t have had today,” said the man of the moment.