When the jockeys in the Randox Health Grand National walk down the famous steps at Aintree in April, missing from their ranks will be dual race winner Leighton Aspell.
Though one of the senior members of the National Hunt weighing room, the 43-year-old took those at Kempton on Saturday by surprise after announcing he will retire from the saddle for a second time at Fontwell on Sunday.
Despite the Cheltenham Festival being just over two weeks away, Aspell is more than happy to end a career that has produced hundreds of winners and will bow out aboard the Nick Gifford-trained Itsnotwhatyouthink in the bumper at the West Sussex track.
He said: “I hadn’t announced it to the lads in the weighing room and we were mucking around earlier and someone said, ‘you’ve got a few more years left’, and funnily enough I said, ‘I haven’t, as it is all coming to an end tomorrow’.
“They thought I was joking, as I’ve done this once before. The reception has been great, there are some great guys in there.
“Hopefully through some line of work I will be able to remain closely associated with racing and the guys in the weighing room.”
Having initially hung up his saddle in 2007, Aspell returned in 2009 – and it was during his second innings he enjoyed his finest moments, highlighted by back-to-back Grand National wins aboard Pineau De Re in 2014 and Many Clouds 12 months later.
He said: “I went through a bit of a lull and quiet time coming into that summer (2007) and I thought it was time to do something else.
“I had that 12 to 18 months out and I realised I made the wrong decision and I was lucky enough to step back into it and ride a lot more winners.
“Winning the Nationals back-to-back would be the highlight, along with the Hennessy (aboard Many Clouds), but I have had many other great winners for Oliver Sherwood and many other people like Lucy Wadham, Nick Gifford and Josh Gifford.”
Though Aspell is soon to be hanging up the saddle, he hopes to continue working within racing in the future.
He added: “I’m going to take some time out and get my head down and try to work something out.
“I do some pre-training, but I’m very interested in the handicapping and race-reading side of stuff. I’d be very interested in a job along those lines.”
Despite Aspell ending his career without a Cheltenham Festival winner to his name, he is rightly proud of what he has achieved.
He said: “I’m going to die a Cheltenham Festival virgin. I’ve had plenty of rides there, but no winners. Deputy Dan was placed in the Albert Bartlett a few years ago and a couple have been placed in handicaps, but that is about it.
“I’m very proud and I’m a very lucky man to have done it as long as I could and to still be getting the opportunity to ride good horses.”
Leading the tributes to Aspell was Oliver Sherwood, the man that trained Many Clouds and supplied him with numerous other notable winners.
He said: “He told me a few days ago. When your mind’s made up like that there’s no point in try to persuade him otherwise.
“He’s 43, rising 44. We’ve had 16 pretty good years together. We were counting up and he’s ridden nearly 250 winners for me. I think it’s one of the longer associations in National Hunt racing.
“I can’t talk highly enough about the man. He’s a proper professional, a true horseman, a real team player. He’ll be sorely missed and I wish him all the best for the future.
“As for highlights – it’s Many Clouds by a country mile. He was the only man who ever rode him or schooled him at home and rode him on a racecourse. That’s quite unique in this game.
“The only thing I regret for him was not winning at the Cheltenham Festival. Deputy Dan very nearly gave him that winner, but he’s a proper horseman and a quiet, unassuming kind of guy with a wicked sense of humour.
“It would be great if he could sign off on a winner, but as long as he gets out in one piece.”
Dr Richard Newland may have only used Aspell on the odd occasion, but he will be forever thankful for what he did aboard Pineau De Re six years ago.
He said: “Leighton didn’t ride a lot for us, but he’s a truly superb horseman and on one very good day in April 2014 he did us a big favour.
“I’ve a lot of time for Leighton and on the day of the Grand National he was brilliant. He was second in the National a few years before (on Supreme Glory, 2003). He was on the comeback trail then.
“We’ll be forever grateful for his connection. Him and Pineau De Re were a great combination on the day. They were absolutely brilliant. He was quite superb with him.”
Like many of his colleagues, champion jockey Richard Johnson was surprised at the decision, and will miss his presence in the weighing room.
Johnson said: “I was a bit shocked when I heard the news. He has had an amazing career and he is a brilliant lad to have in the weighing room.
“He is the ultimate professional and I don’t think you will find anyone, be that trainers, jockeys or owners, that would say a bad word about him.
“You were always worried about him as he was tough to get by and if he was behind you in a race you knew he would never give up, but he was just a very good horseman.
“He will be sorely missed in the weighing room.”