Jason Titley lived the dream in 1995, when he became the first Clare jockey since Tommy Cullinan in 1930 to win the Grand National – a day he recalls 20 years on with Joe Ó Muircheartaigh.
“They’re coming down towards the final fence. It’s Royal Athlete the leader towards the right there from Romany King, and then Master Oats in third and four is Party Politics… Is this going to be another one for Jenny Pitman? They’re racing towards the elbow. And it’s Royal Athlete being chased now by Party Politics, a previous winner. They’re coming into the final hundred yards and Royal Athlete is sprinting! Royal Athlete cannot be caught now. Royal Athlete under 24-year-old Jason Titley comes to the line to win it!”
COMMENTATOR Peter O’Sullevan in full flow down Aintree’s home stretch and Jason Titley is racing the dream.
High in his irons as he flashes past the winning post and into the history books — into that select club starting with Jem Mason, who led Lottery home in 1839, to have won the National.
Very select when you consider the who’s who of the jumping game who never won the race — champion jockeys such as Terry Biddlecome, Dick Francis, Johnny Francome, Peter Scudamore, Stan Mellor, Josh Gifford….it goes on and on.
And John Joe O’Neill who competed seven times, but never even completed the course, while it took the high priest Tony McCoy until this 15th attempt to finally land a winner with Don’t Push It, ironically enough for trainer John Joe O’Neill.
McCoy’s last National will be on Saturday — his first was ’95 when there were 12 first timers, only to come a cropper at the 12th aboard Chatam; Mick Fitzgerald was another having his maiden voyage, but his race was over soon after crossing the Melling Road as Tinryland fell at the first.
Jason Titley would know all about the first fence – he fell there on Bavard Dieu in ’96 and again on Micko’s Dream in 2000, but in ’95 it was very different. ”A dream,” he says, “and it still is, all of 20 years on.
“First of all it was a dream to get a ride in the race — I’d never run in the National before. My agent rang me and said ‘you’ve to be over in Jenny Pitman’s at 7.30am in the morning to ride out Royal Athlete’.
“Royal Athlete used to be very keen at home, which meant he pulled a lot. She told me to go down and do a bit of work on him. It was a place called the Bowl in Lambourn, a big galloping track. He worked with two very good horses, Princefull and Jibber the Kibber who was after winning the Tote Silver Trophy at Chepstow.
“I went by them very easily up on top of the hill and he never pulled or anything with me. Jenny said ‘that’s lovely’ and we went into the kitchen after that and she said ‘you got on very well with him and most time he’d run away down there, so if the owners are happy you’ll be riding him in the National’.
“That was the Thursday week before the National. I had looked up his form and I asked her would we school him over fences, because he hadn’t ran in a year, his last two races were over hurdles and in his last two over fences he had fallen. Jenny said ‘no he’ll be fine’. I was saying to myself ‘God almighty, he hasn’t jumped a fence in a year’.
“Then I was riding out the following Tuesday and I met Jamie Osborne, who used to ride Royal Athlete all the time. ‘You’re mad riding him,’ said Jamie. ‘He’s no chance of getting around’. I just said ‘I don’t care, it’s my first ride in the National’.
“‘I’m telling you he won’t get around’, laughed Jamie, but again I said ‘I don’t care, I’m in and that’s all that matters’.”
Jason Titley’s dream had begun.
THE Titleys had a few acres behind their home in Lemenagh Beg on the back road between Newmarket-on-Fergus and Shannon and it was home to Jason’s pony Merry Legs.
It was a long way to go from Merry Legs to crossing the Melling Road in the Grand National, but at the same time closer than you think, because of the national spirit in these parts.
Shannon Lass, who hacked home to victory in the 1902 running of the race, was bred over the fields in Rineanna on James Reidy’s land that eventually made way for the Shannon Airport runways and thanks to Merry Legs the breeding of another Grand National winner was about to begin.
“I sat up on a horse for the first time at three or four,” recalls Titley, “and learned to ride at Kevin Burke’s on a pony called Appetite. I’d say the pony was about 40 when she died — a small bay pony, as round as a barrel, you couldn’t fall off him.
“Then when I was about six or seven Merry Legs broke into Jimmy and Michael Conheady’s near the Bellsfort — they said I could leave him there, so I started going down helping out and when I was around ten I started riding race horses.
“I loved it. I had no fear and when I started secondary school in St Patrick’s Comprehensive I was gone every Saturday and Sunday with horses. When it came to third year I went up to the principal Mr O’Donovan and said ‘I’m wasting my time here, give me a year out and see what happens’. That was it. My first winner was Capincur Lady for John Brassil — a grey mare that won in Limerick when I was 16.”
Quite literally Titley was away — come the following year he was the leading claiming rider as a steady stream of winners came his way before John Brassil’s How The Boss really put him on the map in the 1992 Ladbroke Hurdle at Leopardstown, with other big race wins following over the next few years at Gowran Park, Cheltenham, Galway, Punchestown and Fairyhouse before his crack at the biggest prize of all came around at Aintree.
“How’s The Boss cantered up that day in the Ladbroke,” he recalls, “and after that I went to Cheltenham and got a ride on My View in the Coral Hurdle and won at 33/1. It was unbelievable to win there — the horse only had one eye and I took him along the inside. That was the first Irish winner in Cheltenham that year and I had no idea of the noise when I was coming in.
“I rode Natalie’s Fancy in the Galway Hurdle that year and she won and the following year won the BMW Chase in Punchestown on Musical Priest and then the Irish National in ’94 on Vanton. That was huge. Michael O’Brien trained him and he’d fallen in his last two runs and he rang me and said ‘I want you here in the morning’.
“I went to Naas to ride him schooling and he jumped great — he did a mile over fences and then they got another horse to go another mile with him to make him go as fast as he could. I rode an awful lot of winners for him, good horses like Arctic Weather, Chuwiha. One year I won 20 hurdle races for Jim Bolger, but then all the rides dried up and I was just getting by.
“Noel Meade had Paul Carberry, Eddie O’Grady had Charlie Swan, Michael Hourigan had Kevin O’Brien and Timmy Murphy, while Conor O’Dwyer was riding all of JP McManus’, so it was hard to get the good rides. I was riding out for Enda Bolger one day and he just said ‘try a year in England’.”
With that Titley uprooted from Clare to Oxfordshire and based himself in Faringdon where his near neighbours included Adrian Maguire, Mick Fitzgerald and Richard Dunwoody, while he shared a house with Johnny Kavanagh, another young jockey on his way to his first National ride in 1995.
“I had to do ten stone when I went over,” says Titley, “but I was heavy going over, because there wasn’t enough racing in Ireland to keep your weight down, but over in England there was racing every day.
“I was doing a lot of running and playing a lot of squash, but you might go out then on a Saturday night and put it back on and you’d have to start again. Richard Dunwoody and Graeme Bradley were great — they used to make me go out and play squash and I got my weight down to do ten stone, I was about 9 stone 11 stripped for the National.”
The big thing was to get the rides.
“I was with Henrietta Knight and what she said to be was ‘Jamie Osborne rides first jockey here so I can’t promise you anything but you can ride out every morning’. My first ride in England was Chugs — he fell at the last when he was ten lengths in front in Huntington.
“I rode a winner or two before the end of the year. I also went up to David Nicholsan and rode out for him. I was like starting from scratch — there were so many people in the yard trying to build up their own reputation. It was hard to go in and get above four or five people in the pecking order. But that’s what I had to do.”
It was the 1994/95 season and the Grand National wasn’t even on Titley’s radar, until his agent called ten days before the race. “I took six horses to Aintree,” recalled trainer Jenny Pitman in her autobiography a few years later.
“Three of them were 12 year olds — Esha Ness (the winner of the void National of 1993), Garrison Savannah (Gold Cup winner) and Royal Athlete, but this did not worry me. Royal Athlete’s temperament had not mellowed much over the years — he was still a hard puller and needed quiet, sensitive handling. Jason could handle him,” she added.
Then it all happened so fast. The night before the race he’d driven up from Faringdon and booked into a hotel in Haydock where he shared a room with celebrated show jumper Nick Skelton. “I went to bed at nine o’clock and Skelton came into the room at four in the morning after having a big night and he said ‘are you alright, did you sleep at all’,” recalls Titley.
“My answer was ‘I was fast asleep until you came in, now I won’t be able to sleep at all’. ‘You’ll be alright,’ he said. I had to be up in the yard at 7 in the morning to ride him out. The big thing in the National is that all the horses go out and the television cameras would be there — it’s a canter up the course.
“I’d no other rides that day, but I stayed around after the morning ride out and walked the course with Jenny and her son Mark. I came in then and had a bit of breakfast, a sauna and read the papers and by then people were starting to arrive at the course and the place was coming alive.”
IT’S 3pm on Saturday, 8 April, 1995 and Jason Titley is in the weigh room. It’s different to all the other rooms he was ever in. “It’s the quietness,” he remembers 20 years on. “There’s a hush, people are talking but they’re thinking about what they doing. Fellas are taking their time tying their caps and getting ready. The starter comes in with instructions and the tension is rising.”
“I told Jason to ‘ride him as if his reins were threads of cotton’,” revealed Jenny Pitman, while Titley recalls her saying “‘jump off with a bit of light to the outside’, but when I jumped off he was keen and I ended up down the inner for the whole race, where he got plenty of light, so it didn’t matter.
“He went down to the first and stood a mile off it and frightened the life out of himself — he was too brave going into it. He could have fallen but after that he kept backing back and he opened his eyes and learned from it. I was lucky, but at the third fence which is a big ditch he was very good and was nearly foot perfect all the way after that,” adds Titley.
Running the race of his life — mid-division and out of trouble on the first circuit, moving up as they set out the country for the second time.
Norman Williamson was riding Master Oats and when we came to the Canal Turn we were together. When we jumped the Canal Turn, I looked up. We used to call each other John — everyone in the weigh room was John — and I said ‘John I think the fence ahead is on fire’.
“He looked up as if to say ‘what in the name of God are you on about’. The antis were after firing a canister over the rail and it landed on the inside of Valentine’s Brook and there was smoke coming up. It didn’t bother the horses and they jumped straight out over it.”
“There’s orange smoke being let off over on the far side of the course,” said Jim McGrath in commentary, “but it seems to be well clear of the runners as they head to the next fence. It’s Royal Athlete the lead in company with Master Oats as come to the next (the fifth last). They’re well clear of in third place Romany King,” he added.
“I knew I was going better that Norman,” says Titley. “He said ‘John take a pull there to give them a breather’. I was happy where I was. I looked back to see where everyone else was and the two of us looked around together as we crossed the Melling Road. We were going clear and from then I was just trying to make sure I’d get over the second last — it had caused mayhem in the previous few years.”
“I watched the race from the settee in an owners’ and trainers’ marquee with Mark (Pitman),” recalled Jenny Pitman. “All through the race we kept glancing across at each other because neither of us could really believe what we were seeing.
“The Johnson family (Royal Athlete’s owners) were so nervous that they couldn’t bear to watch the race. Instead they sat on the grass by the statue of Red Rum, listening to the commentary. It was only when they heard that Royal Athlete had jumped the last that they ran over to the unsaddling enclosure and saw the last few strides on television.”
By then Titley was high in the air, with his right fist clenched sprinting home in what was then the second fastest time in Grand National history.
“He missed the last fence a bit and then it was the long run in,” says Titley, “but anytime I gave him a bit of a squeeze there was loads there. When I hit the Elbow and looked around I knew that as long as I didn’t fall off I had it.
“I sat up in the irons a bit much at the end, but that’s what you do. You’d never have a feeling like that again. Your first winner you have a great feeling, but this was it. I couldn’t believe it when I pulled up.
“I met Jenny’s husband David and the young lad that led the horse in was crying. The police horses lead you in and there were couple of lads from Shannon trying to get in — I knew their faces from Shannon — and I said to the police, ‘they’re with me, they’re alright’.
A year on from the success Titley’s recounted his greatest day in an interview with racing journalist Charles Fawcus — the last line being the final leg of the journey home after being in Francos Italian Restaurant in Faringdon where the party raged long into the night.
“2am: Bed at last. Shattered but what a sensation. If I die now, I’ve achieved something!”
An achievement that will never grow old.