By STEVE DOUGLAS, Associated Press
Auroras Encore, a 66-1 long shot, won the Grand National Steeplechase by nine lengths Saturday in a race shadowed by a recent history of horse deaths.
All 40 horses in the world's most famous jumping race returned unscathed and only two fell over the 4½ miles. Only 17 horses finished but there was no repeat of the carnage that led to renewed calls from animal-rights groups for the race to be banned.
Four horses died in the previous two editions of the grueling event, forcing organizers to modify the course — softening high fences and improving landing areas and course irrigation.
"The new construction of the fences appeared to play a significant part in the spectacle and we also need to recognize the part the jockeys have played right from the off," said John Baker, who runs the course at Aintree in northwest England. "British racing should be tremendously proud of their contribution today."
Auroras Encore, ridden Ryan Mania, burst clear after jumping the last of 30 fences to finish ahead of Cappa Bleu, a 12-1 shot. Teaforthree led approaching the last fence but came in third.
"There are no words to describe it. I got a dream ride round, I couldn't believe my luck," said Mania, who was riding in the National for the first time. "I couldn't fault the horse. He loved every second of it. He was just class."
Sue Smith, the husband of former Olympic show jumper Harvey Smith, became only the third woman to train a National winner, following Jenny Pitman (1983, 1995) and Venetia Williams (2009). It also was the first victory for one of Auroras Encore's four co-owners, David van der Hoeven.
"It's unbelievable," Smith said. "He gave him such a good ride. I knew the ground was right for him."
It was the first time in 166 Grand Nationals that the entire field was in contention up to the Canal Turn — the eighth fence.
Auroras Encore's best previous showing was second in the Scottish National a year ago.
"Coming into the second last I was delighted — I was going to be placed — but then I saw the two in front of me slow and I thought, 'This is happening,'" Mania said. "I then gave him a shove and he didn't hold back. I heard the commentator talk of a loose horse, but I didn't even dare look back."
Only three post-war winners — Caughoo (1947), Foinavon (1967) and Mon Mome (2009) — have had longer odds. Each of that trio was a 100-1 shot
Katie Walsh was bidding to become the first female jockey to win the race but her mount, the favorite Seabass, ran out of steam in the closing stages. Two other well-regarded horses, On His Own and Colberts Station, were among the 23 that did not finish.
In all, six jockeys were unseated, 14 horses were pulled up and one refused a fence.
Critics of the race pointed to the deaths of two horses over the first two days of the festival as evidence of the dangers of Aintree's notoriously tough fences.
"The deaths of the horses Battlefront (on Thursday) and Little Josh (on Friday) reflect current risk of fatalities in steeplechasing, which needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency," the World Society for the Protection of Animals said in a statement.
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