FILE - This is a Saturday, April 11, 2015 file photo of jockey Leighton Aspell as he smiles after winning the Grand National horse race aboard Many Clouds at Aintree Racecourse Liverpool, England. Leighton Aspell made a heat-of-the-moment decision to ret
Jon Super, File
April 08, 2016

Leighton Aspell made a heat-of-the-moment decision to retire from horse racing in 2007, feeling he'd lost his passion for the sport.

The thrill of riding winners made him return to the saddle 18 months later - and now he's standing on the brink of history on arguably the biggest stage in British racing.

Aspell will become the first jockey to win the Grand National Steeplechase for three straight years if he rides Many Clouds, the 2015 winner, to victory in the world's most grueling horse race at Aintree on Saturday.

''I am so glad that I did change my mind,'' said Aspell, an unassuming, 39-year-old Irishman. ''When I did return, it gave me a massive appreciation of it and I was going to cherish it and take it with both hands.''

Those hands guided Pineau De Re to victory in 2014, before Aspell became the first jockey in 61 years to win successive Nationals on different horses by giving Many Clouds the smoothest of rides to win by a length and three-quarters at 25-1.

Many Clouds is the pre-race favorite on Saturday, with many British bookmakers giving odds of 8-1. The 9-year-old horse will carry top weight of 74 kilograms and could become the first horse to win back-to-back Nations since Red Rum in 1973-74.

''He ticks all the right boxes - ability and stamina-wise,'' Aspell said of Many Clouds, who completed his preparation for the Grand National with a 10-length win last month. ''We've just got to keep him in the best possible shape and I am sure he will give it his best shot.''

If Many Clouds wins, Trevor Hemmings would become the first owner to win the race four times (Hedgehunter in 2005, Ballabriggs in 2011 and Many Clouds).

The race, run over the famous 4 1/2-mile (6,400-meter) course featuring 30 mostly fearsome fences, has a prize fund of 1 million pounds ($1.4 million) and has an early-evening start this year, which organizers believe will attract an estimated worldwide TV audience of 1 billion.

Among Many Clouds' 39 rivals on Saturday will be Kruzhlinin, ridden by a jockey who has competed in the most Grand Nationals without winning.

Before this season, Richard Johnson's top goal was to become champion jockey in Britain but he was often denied by the great Tony McCoy. McCoy's retirement in 2015 opened the door for Johnson and he is close to sealing his first jockey title.

Now to get tick another box in his racing career.

''I think it is the one race over the world that people know,'' Johnson said of the Grand National. ''Even for non-racing people, it's the one race a year they watch . I've been second in it twice, so it would be nice to add it to my CV.''

No female jockey has ever won the race. Only Katie Walsh can end that drought this year - she is riding Ballycasey.

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