Grand National’s enduring charm embodied by stirring Worsley story

For the first time in two years but the umpteenth overall, a 10-minute steeplechase at Aintree next Saturday will seize the attention of millions around the globe, and for an illustration of why the Grand National remains the most popular horse race of the year by far, look no further than a 12-year-old gelding called Sub Lieutenant in the seven-horse Worcestershire stable of Georgie Howell.

It is not just the mouse-that-roared nature of Howell’s tilt at the world’s most famous chase in its 174th running that captures the imagination. Tabitha Worsley, Howell’s daughter, will take the ride next weekend, when she will hope to become the first female jockey to win the National – and even that, by some measures, would not be the most remarkable aspect of a victory either for Sub Lieutenant, who is expected to start at about 100-1, or Worsley, who broke her back in a fall in November 2017 but returned to racing a few months later.

Sub Lieutenant, a Maserati among Morris Oxfords at the family stable, was not even bought with the National in mind. “We train a few very moderate 0-100 horses and we absolutely love them to bits,” Worsley says. “But they are what they are. When we bought him, we wanted a horse to have some nice family days out, maybe a veterans’ final on a Saturday at Sandown.

“Then we had a little setback and didn’t make the veterans’ qualifiers, and so we ran him at Ascot [in December]. We watched the race about 50 times afterwards and we all agreed that he looked tailor-made for the National and that this would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us as a family to have a runner in the Grand National.”

Worsley’s brother and sister-in-law will lead Sub Lieutenant around the parade ring next weekend before his rider climbs aboard and goes to post attempting to preserve a 100% record around the National fences. Her only previous start over the famous obstacles was in April 2019, when Top Wood landed the Foxhunters’ Chase by two lengths, little more than a year after the fall which could have ended Worsley’s career, or worse.

For some on the outside looking in, it might seem foolhardy to return to race-riding, but for Worsley, the question did not arise. “I’ve still got metal in there, and I’d imagine that will always stay in unless it gives me any trouble at any stage,” she says. “[But] the actual fall, I’ve had far worse so it didn’t really put me off. I just knew it was rotten luck and I’d just landed at a slightly awkward angle.

“There are many jockeys that haven’t come back from breaks like that and I’m very lucky that I did get back and I get to do what I love. You know what you’re signing up to when you become a jockey and I think some days, my mum would rather I didn’t ride, but she loves racing and her family has always had horses as well.

“So it’s a tough one for her, she loves the racing but at the same time, I think it terrifies her when I go out and ride. She’ll be a quivering wreck next week, because she’s not only got the jockey to worry about, she’s got the horse to worry about as well.”

Like his jockey, Sub Lieutenant has performed well over the National fences before, having finished a close second in the Topham Chase two years ago. Nor is that the only piece of form on his record that gives him a realistic each-way chance. “If he was with one of the big names, he’d probably be 50-1 instead of 100-1,” Worsley says, “but because we’re a tiny little yard with seven horses that are, in the grand scheme of things, absolute nobodies, he’s a massive price and gets really overlooked.

“He was second at Galway last summer behind The Storyteller [a 20-1 shot for the National], they were off level weights that day and I think he was beaten about nine lengths. There’s a 19lb difference between them next week, so if you take that literally, he’d have a hell of a chance.”

If Sub Lieutenant rises to the unique Aintree challenge, his rider is ready to play her part too. “We’d be thrilled to be top 10 with him, but he’s got the form to say that top 10 is realistic,” Worsley says.

“I’m usually pretty calm, I always say there’s no point in getting nervous. If you’re nervous or scared, there’s no point doing it. I’ll probably be a bit less calm than I normally am, but it’s an amazing opportunity for us and ultimately, we’ve just got to go out and try to enjoy it, and if we get a bit of luck, we could go close.”