Neptune Collonges is without doubt one of the bravest horses seen on a UK is Irish racecourse in many year and I have no doubt that if he wasn't unlucky enough to have had to come up against two of the best chasers in the last 20 years Kauto Star and Denman then he would have been the first grey since Desert Orchid to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup. This magnificent grey gelding nicknamed 'Nipper' ensured that his name is the record books thou after he became the 1st grey since Nicholas Silver way back in 1961 to win the worlds greatest steeplechase The Grand National.
He began his career in a 3yo novice chase at Pau in Decemebr 2004 and went on to become one of the top novice chasers in France winning five of his six starts with the only blemish on his record being when unseating his rider at Auteuil back in March 2005 and soon put this right when winning his final start on France before being purchased by John Hales and transfered to the stable of champion trainer Paul Nicholls.
He made his British debut at Cheptsow in a novice hurdle and the spent the rest of the 2005/06 season running over hurdles winning grade 2 races at Sandown, Wetherby and Haydock and also ran 2nd behind The World Hurdle winner My Way De Solzen in a very promising debut season in the UK.
The 2006/07 season would see Neptune make his debut over the larger obstacles and made a perfectly satisfactory chasing debut finishing 2nd to Our Vic in Wetherby's Charlie Hall Chase. The rest of the season was a bit of a mixed bag or results including finishing 8th in Kauto Stars 2007 Cheltenham Gold Cup. He then finished of the season bagging a maiden Grade 1 win when heading over to Ireland to take the Punchestown Gold Cup.
The 2007/08 possibly saw Neptune Collonges at the peak of his powers. Despite making a later than usual seasonal debut he easily won his first race of the 2007/08 season at Wincanton before heading back to Cheltenham for his second crack at The Gold Cup. He ran his heart out staying on stoutly to finish just behind the great Kauto Star in 3rd place but this was the day Denman announced himself as one of the great chasers of recent years with as dominant display one will ever see at Cheltenham brutalising the opposition with a magnificent seven length victory in a memorable race. After his great effort behind Denman and Kauto Star he returned to Ireland to sucessfully retains his Punchestown Gold Cup crown.
He returned to Ireland but this time to Leopardstown for there Christmas highlight The Lexus Chase but for the only time in his career he fell when bang in contention in a race won by Exotic Dancer.
He would return to the same track in February 2009 but would not make the same mistake twice and he comfortably won his third grade 1 chase in The Hennessy Gold Cup setting him up perfectly for a third attempt at The Gold Cup. He ran another honourable race this time finishing 4th in a race where Kauto Star extracted his revenge over Denman with a scintillating 13 length victory with Exotic Dancer back in 3rd but a few days after this race he was found to have suffered a injury that was serious enough to rule him out of the entire 2009/10 NH season. This injury was believed to have occurred during the race making his finishing position all the more courageous.
He made his return in the 2010 Hennessy Gold Cup where he was bought down at a very early stage, He was then sent back to Cheltenham for a handicap chase when carrying a huge weight after such a long lay off was two much to allow him to get competitive but at least it blew away the cobwebs and on his next start again at Cheltenham he made all to take The Argento Chase from his future stablemate Tidal Bay. It was then back to the same track for his 4th and final crack at the Gold Cup where he could only plug on up the hill to finish 8th. He was entered in both The Grand National where he would have been asked to carry top weight or The Scottish National and it was the latter that was selected as his final target of the season. On ground he found a bit two lively up at Ayr he ran yet another gallant race to finish 6th giving away the best part of 2 stone to the majority of his 27 rivals. This confirmed that the marathon trip of 4m was within his range and the 2011/12 season would be geared towards a attempt at The Grand National.
Newbury's Hennessy Gold Cup would be the starting point for his final season but given a very tough task by the handicapper giving lumps of weight away to smart young horses on good ground he found things happening two quickly and was eventually pulled up. It was then onto Ascot of The Silver Cup and when in less competitive race but still asked to carry a huge weight he stayed on up the hill to finish 4th. Two weeks later it was onto Sandown and despite getting a little detached he battled on very bravely up the famous Sandown hill to finish a excellent 2nd giving Alan Kings very useful Hold On Julio almost 2 stone in weight. 3m was looking on the sharp side for him at this stage of his career so it was a step up to 3m4f in Haydock Park's Grand National Trial where under top weight in very testing conditions he put up a most honourable performance to only fail by head to reel in Giles Cross a proven specialist in these conditions. This would set him up perfectly for his greatest challenge yet. The Grand National but Paul Nicholls would have to use all his power of persuasion to convince his owner John Hales to allow 'Nipper' to take his chance at Aintree.
For once he would not have to carry top weight with the handicapper allocating him 11-7 but with the weights compressed this wasn't as harsh as some of the tasks he had been set in handicaps in recent years. Daryl Jacob would take the ride with Ruby Walsh opting to rise On His Own for Willie Mullins but then having to miss the race after a fall earlier on the card.
I hate to think how connections felt with Neptune lining up among 40 horses for the worlds toughest race and the jockey was given instructions to pull him up if the horse wasn't enjoying the Aintree experience but this would certainly not be the case.
As the tapes went up he had to be ridden along for a few strides after the start after being left a few lengths behind and for the majority of the first circuit he was dropped towards the back of the huge field before creeping into the race on the second circuit. It was clear half way through the race he was relishing the challenge jumping the huge fences with great enthusiasm and despite having several horses around him come to grief he very nimbly avoided them. As the crossed the Melling Road for the final time he was at the back of the leading group but Daryl Jacob still had not asked for everything and as several of the challengers got tired over the last few fences it was Katie Walsh on Seabass trained by her father Ted Walsh leading at the last with the JP McManus owned Sunnyhillboy upsides with Neptune a few lengths back in 3rd. Seabass's started to run out of gas towards the elbow and Richie Mclernon kicked on on Sunnyhillboy and with a furlong to run a move that looked to have won the race but no one told Neptune Collonges this and in as close a finish as ever witnessed in The Grand National Neptune started to gain ground hand over fist with a memorable late charge up the run in to overhaul the leader right on the line. It was a few minutes before the photo finish was announced as it was that tight but when Number 4 Neptune Collonges was announced on the PA jubilation overcome the connections who after years being in the shadow of Kauto Star and Denman 'Nipper' finally become a superstar in his own right in which would be the final race of his career.