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Murphy's ride a fine example of exquisite calm over aggression; Aintree aftermath.

Byline: Chief correspondent James Willoughby on a jockey who is an expert at keeping his head in a battle

FOR its own sake, the Grand National should always resemble a race first and a demolition derby second. To this end, its most identifiable visual elements ought to be those common to intense competition rather than absolute chaos.

Thankfully, the latest edition fully lived up to this ideal. It had a rolling narrative in which enough horses could be seen to rise to the challenge for those who recoiled from it to become the exception not the rule.

It is still sobering that one horse failed to survive the experience and only 15 of the 40 completed. This was particularly disappointing given there were no casualties in the charge over the first fence.

The jockeys deserved credit for this last statistic. Theirs is the responsibility to project to the public that safety is uppermost in their mind; that the National is won by keeping a calm head as much as it is by derring-do.

This was the impression the viewer derived from Timmy Murphy's actions. If the public's experience of racing means that the finer points of tactics go over their head, they are still capable of identifying reckless aggression - and railing against it where they perceive that the wellbeing of an animal has been put at risk.

Murphy was the antidote to these fears. His body language radiated calm and reinforced the message that the best National jockeys are risk-averse as well as brave.

Comply Or Die was racing keenly and even took off out of Murphy's hands on some occasions. Still, the jockey did not become infected by the horse's exuberance and kept him wide of any trouble and out of any potential head-to-head duel that would excite him still further.

Critics of racing claim that the National proves that sport plays fast and loose with the safety of horses in order to derive its excitement.

What better way than Murphy's ride to show them that jockeys do not lose sense of perspective in search of greater glory; that the race is to the swift but also to the sagacious.

On this last point, the image from Aintree 2008 that will stay in my mind longest was Ruby Walsh's reaction to defeat on Kauto Star in last Thursday's Totesport Bowl. For the previous five minutes, Walsh's greatest admirers had probably looked on in disbelief as their great hero abandoned his characteristic artistry in favour of brute force.

Walsh, above all others, is the rider who shows that smoothly does it, that a horse uses its energy best when he gives his effort willingly and without being constantly pestered.

When Kauto Star came to a halt after the post, the camera zoomed in on Walsh with perfect timing. And there on his face was exactly what you wanted to see.

Writ large on it was the admission of a terrible tactical crime; that he had descended from the virtuous to the merely plebeian; that he had thrown off the garb of timing and patience in favour of naked aggression. Most of all, that he was mad at himself for doing so.

Apart from being the beneficiary of a natural gift, Walsh and Murphy have flourished due to being patient riders during an era when most jump races are run at too fast a pace. INCREASED professionalism in jumping led trainers to get their horses fitter and jockeys to exploit this advantage with bold, attacking riding.

Then, as more professionals imitated their successful brethren, the whole thing went too far. Sure, races are still won from the front a good percentage of the time and always will be. In the big races, however, it is increasingly hard to bully the opposition.

And jockeys who once derived a massive edge from aggression - most notably Tony McCoy - have been forced to adapt.

To our credit, punters have also learned to recognise and appreciate the subtlety of riders like Murphy, Walsh and others. When the money is down, it is our base instinct to want the ears scrubbed off one.

In our defence, you could argue that we have become dependent on seeing palpable effort only because of the opposite actions of riders with nefarious intent.

It is ironic that the vehicle for such silky skills as displayed by Murphy on Saturday was a horse called Comply Or Die. For it was only by first gaining the horse's confidence with persuasion rather than coercion that a once rather faint-hearted character has become a true National hero.
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Apr 7, 2008
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