AT an age when most people are looking forward to retirement George Dilger embarked on a new career which has seen him taste glory on one of the biggest sporting stages in the world.

Mr Dilger, 71, and his wife Maureen, 58, were over the moon when their racehorse Niki Dee - named after their only daughter, Niki Dilger - finished third in this year's Grand National.

Ridden by Robbie Supple, Niki Dee - a 25-1 shot - was beaten to the Aintree finishing line by Papillon.

It was cheered through the four-and-a-half mile race by its owners and Niki Dilger herself, who was forced to watch the race from a special buggy after breaking her leg in a skiing accident.

But Mr Dilger, of Menston, is hoping to reverse the tables when Niki Dee and Papillon meet again on May 3 in the prestigious £120,000 Heineken Gold Cup - one of Ireland's top races - during the Punchestown Festival.

And now the boss of Bradford-based New Plan Furniture Ltd hopes to make history by having his horses take first and second places in the world's most famous race.

He and his wife are hoping Niki Dee will run again in next year's National alongside another of their horses, Cherry Dee, a direct descendent of the legendary steeplechaser Arkle.

Mr Dilger said: "I think Niki Dee could do even better next year and it'd be marvellous to make history by taking first and second places.''

A spokesman for Ladbrokes said Niki Dee's price for next year's National was currently 33-1 and Cherry Dee's 66-1 with the odds against them finishing first and second about 2,000-1.

He said: "To win the National's a great achievement but to get first and second would be one of the greatest sporting achievements of all time.''

Niki Dee - trained at Stearsby in North Yorkshire by Peter Beaumont - won £55,000 in prize money for coming third at Aintree, while Mr Dilger scooped around £900 from an each way bet.

Nicola Dee, 26, said: "It's a huge honour to have a racehorse named after you and when I found out what they were calling him I just knew he was going to be a good one.''

For Mr Dilger, the National result was one of his proudest moments since becoming an owner seven years ago.

The father-of-five said: "I'd always had a minor interest in racing but things only happened when I was contemplating retirement - work had always been my hobby and I thought I should get myself another.

"I couldn't play football at that age so wanted a spectator sport and this was it.

"I knew people who had horses and they said I ought to get myself one so I did - although I still haven't retired.

"You do get a buzz from it and there's the excitement of going into the parade ring and winners' enclosure.

"It can be a full-time job and certainly keeps the old brain ticking over.

"There's a big social scene with jump racing and some very nice people in it - it's not dominated by money like flat racing and apart from the big races like the National there's not a lot of prize money so you don't come into it for the money although we have made a profit this season for the first time.''

l Niki Dee - Irish-bred ten-year-old gelding bought six years ago for £25,000. Sired by Phardante. Five career wins, six seconds and two thirds. Third in 2000 Grand National and second in the Cathcart race at the 1999 Cheltenham Festival and this year's Great Yorkshire race at Doncaster.

l Cherry Dee - nine-year-old mare descended from Arkle and bought six years ago for £21,000. Six career wins, including last two races.

Had been entered for last Saturday's Scottish Grand National at Ayr but withdrawn because the ground was too firm. Running at Carlisle on Easter Monday.

l Island Chief - 11-year-old gelding bought seven years ago for £25,000 and just retired. Five career wins, three seconds and two thirds in just 13 outings. Second in the William Hill Race at Cheltenham in 1999.

l Gale Force - nine-year-old gelding bred in Ireland from sire Strong Gale. Bought in 1995 for £21,000. Four career wins, one second and two thirds in 26 runs.

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