Niall (Slippers) Madden had never ridden over the Grand National fences before the 2006 Grand National. He had ridden at Aintree before, at the Grand National meeting, but never over the big fences. And he hadn’t had much luck there.
“There used to be an amateur riders’ chase after the Grand National,” he says. “I rode in that race three times, and I never got further than the first fence! I didn’t really have a good record at Aintree.”
All that changed in 2006.
NUMBERSIXVALVERDE went into the 2006 Grand National with a good profile for the race. Trained by Martin Brassil, Slippers had ridden him to win the Thyestes Chase at Gowran Park the previous season, and the horse had followed up by winning the Irish Grand National two months later with Ruby Walsh on board.
Slippers was hoping that he would get back on him at Aintree.
“I knew that Ruby was probably going to ride Hedgehunter,” he says, “so I was hoping that I would get back on Numbersixvalverde. But I didn’t know for certain until after I rode him in a handicap hurdle at Naas on his last run before the National. Martin asked me after that race if I would ride him in the National.”
Slippers was only 20 at the time. It was a big vote of confidence from Martin Brassil and owner Bernard Carroll, to entrust their horse to a 20-year-old jockey who had never ridden in the Grand National before.
The young rider walked the course on the morning of the race with his dad. Niall (Boots) Madden had ridden Attitude Adjuster to finish fifth in the National in 1988, and he walked every step of the course with his son. The overnight rain had turned the ground good to soft, which was a positive for Numbersixvalverde.
“I was never as happy to see rain as I was that night!”
Slippers had watched the videos of past Nationals, where the winners had come from, the positions that they had occupied through their races.
“Dad talked me though every fence. Where I should be at this point, what I should be looking out for. He said if I was eight or 10 lengths off the leaders running down the side of the track, that I would win. Numbersixvalverde stayed so well.”
Race replay: Slippers Madden win the 2006 Grand National aboard Numbersixvalverde.
There were nerves beforehand, but they were good nerves.
“Everyone is nervous before the Grand National. A lot of the nerves are down to excitement though. And you probably ride better when you are a little bit nervous. It sharpens you up.”
The 2006 Grand National was the first Grand National for which the new weighing room was in operation. That was new for everyone. The long walk down the steps towards the parade ring, the clapping onlookers, then trying to find Martin Brassil and Bernard Carroll in the massive parade ring!
“Once I was up on the horse,” says Slippers, “I could relax. In lots of ways, it was just another race.”
Then there was a false start.
“I got a flying start. Nina (Carberry) was riding Forest Gunner, and I remember that we both got flyers. Unfortunately there was the false start and they called us back, and I thought, I’ll never get as good a start the second time, but I did. After that, I just wanted to get over the first fence!”
He got over the first fence all right, and he settled into a rhythm. They were going as fast as Numbersixvalverde wanted to go, but his rider didn’t rush him. He allowed him go at his own pace, even if it meant that he drifted back in the field a bit. If he rushed him, his horse could sulk and your race could be run. Four and a half miles is a long way.
“Going over the Chair and the water jump in front of the stands first time, he came on the bridle a bit. I was very happy with him from there. We had survived the first circuit and then I could think about riding a race on the second.”
The next five fences took him down to Becher’s Brook again, and Numbersixvalverde was loving it.
“You get into a rhythm when you are travelling well. He met every fence in his stride. We were making ground in the air. I actually took a pull on the run to Becher’s, I didn’t want him to get there too early.”
Going to the home turn, he travelled well up on the outside with two horses on his inside – Ruby Walsh on Hedgehunter and AP McCoy on Clan Royal.
“I knew that I had the right jockeys around me anyway! I heard McCoy ask Ruby how he was travelling, and Ruby said that he didn’t have much left. McCoy said, yeah me neither. Then I knew that we had a big chance. I didn’t open my mouth though. I was only 20!”
There was no real plan from there, Slippers didn’t have a set sketch in his head of what to do if he got to the home turn travelling well. He just took his time, he knew that it was still a long way home from there. He didn’t go to the front until over the last fence, and he didn’t pick up his whip until he got to the Elbow. So much can happen in a Grand National, even on the run-in, but he knew when he got to the Elbow in front and got to the rail, that it was unlikely that anything was going to pass him.
“I floated all the way to the line from there,” he says. “I know that the race is never over until you pass the line, but I knew that I was there. I punched the air crossing the line, but I think I only did that because it was the thing to do. I was thrilled, but it didn’t really hit me at the time that I had won the Grand National. It didn’t really sink in until much later. The Grand National, it’s the race that everyone knows, and I had just won it.”