Hero's return for Neptune
Appetite for the John Smith's Grand National remained healthy in one small Somerset village as Neptune Collonges was greeted by a fine turnout on his return home.
Parading winners are not infrequent in Ditcheat, with four Cheltenham Gold Cups being carried back over the years, but trainer Paul Nicholls was overwhelmed by the increased level of attention created by his first Aintree hero.
By the time Neptune Collonges made his fashionably late lunchtime appearance, delayed by the arrival of owner John Hales by helicopter, a crowd of three or four hundred had gathered on the road outside the local pub.
Members of Nicholls' staff, sensing a hazy feeling of deja vu in returning to the Manor House Inn only a few hours after they left, bolstered the numbers along with camera crews, but there were many unfamiliar faces too and it was said one couple had travelled from as far as Cheshire to soak up the atmosphere.
The trainer said: "It's fantastic to see how many people have come along - there are three or four times more than we've had before, without a doubt. It's a unique experience and it shows it's the people's race. My feet haven't touched the ground.
"I went and had dinner with John after the race and got home after one o'clock. I went to check the horse was fine and there must have been 100 people in the yard waiting to see him, and other people have been arriving here since half past six. The party was still going on in the pub but I swerved it to enjoy today. It still hasn't sunk in."
The death of two horses, Synchronised and According To Pete, have placed the race under scrutiny once again, but this part of the West Country is jumping's heartland and it was hardly a place to look for dissenting voices.
Nicholls, who lost Ornais in last year's event, went on: "It's a shame the headlines are not about what was a wonderful race. Of course it was a tragedy (about Synchronised) and there are lessons to be learned, but you've got to reflect on the winner as well.
"Look at how many people were at Aintree enjoying it. Whether they do anything about the fences or the number of runners, I know the race is in good hands. But you can never make it a risk-free sport."
The now-retired Neptune Collonges was appreciated by several rounds of 'three cheers' and Hales said: "I watched him jump the last and I was overjoyed he was safe. He's earned the right to retirement now. He'll go home with me to Shropshire and I'll hopefully find someone to ride him. He has been a dream for us."