Grand National-winning jockey Ryan Mania rode his first ever Cheltenham Festival winner on the Sue Smith-trained Vintage Clouds on Tuesday (16 March) – seven years after he announced his retirement from the sport at the age of 25.
Mania was “enticed back” in October 2019, describing his first Festival winner in the grade three Ultima Handicap Chase as “an unbelievable thrill”.
“Coming into the race, we thought he had a really good each-way chance – that’s all you can hope for coming to Cheltenham,” he said. “I am sure Harvey Smith will tell you that he knew he was going to win, but we were confident that he would come and run his race because he always does – he’s a real true old warrior. We’re delighted by that.
“I’m pretty sure this hasn’t sunk in yet, but in a way I have been able to take it in a bit more without the distraction of the crowds,” added the thrilled jockey, who defied odds of 28/1. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would come and ride a Cheltenham winner, especially so soon after coming out of retirement, so I couldn’t be happier.”
Mania partnered 2013 Grand National hero Auroras Encore for Sue Smith but later made the decision to retire from race riding.
“About 18 months after the Grand National I was in a dark space and saw no way out of it and had to walk away from the sport that I love,” he explained. “But I was enticed back with unfinished business being the main reason and it’s all gone really well.
“It’s been a long road back. I was lucky to get rides here let alone winners!” he said. “It was some training performance, too, because this horse has been a real stalwart in the yard. He was loving it the whole way round. Never did I think he would storm up the hill like he did.”
This was the 11-year-old Vintage Clouds fifth run in the race and Mania credits a wind op as well as newly fitted cheekpieces for today’s success as they crossed the line in front for owner Trevor Hemmings, for whom it was a 12th Festival winner. The pair finished five and a half lengths clear of 100-30 favourite Happygolucky.
“It’s an unbelievable thrill,” said Mania. “It’s a shame that my first Festival winner comes under these circumstances [without spectators], but it truly doesn’t matter. It will be a very memorable day.”
About his relationship with Sue and Harvey Smith, he said: “It couldn’t happen to two nicer people than Sue and Harvey. They’ve been real stalwarts of the sport. I shouldn’t say they’re getting old, but they are getting towards the end of their training and it’s just unbelievable that they can send a horse here in this fettle and still compete with the best of them.
“I think because of the National we always have that shared relationship, that shared bond, and they didn’t have to start giving me rides again when I came out of retirement as ultimately it was them I let down when I retired. They’ve been so good to me, letting me come back in and ride the horses and hopefully this repays some of their faith in me.
“I couldn’t see any other way out at the time, but I still felt as though I let people down. It was November, just when we were starting to get busy, and Sue and Harvey then had to find someone else to ride the horses.
“We had the National winner and we had a lot of history then, and for me to walk away they must have been disappointed. I can’t thank them enough for taking me on again.
“It’s indescribable to be able to come back and do that, feeling as fit and as good as ever, in my mind it makes it right that I came back in the first place. You can’t really put it into words, I can’t thank everyone enough that’s supported me along the way and given me these opportunities.”
The trainer reflected on Vintage Clouds’ tremendous aptitude for Cheltenham.
“He’s run very, very well in the race before and got beaten there two years ago, but he’s an absolute star for us and the old lad is better than ever this time!” she said. “He’s a great jumper, and he does just love it round there. He’s been a very consistent horse for us over the years and he’s deserved every bit of that today – as did the jockey, who gave him a super ride.”