The reminders are everywhere.

He sees the sleek, new Mercedes in the drive. He sees the picture of himself in his winning colours on the wall of his local pub. He sees the invitations to charity events and functions roll in. But he still can't get his head round it all.

When Ryan Mania piloted Auroras Encore to victory in last year's Grand National at Aintree, he gave the event one of its unlikeliest champions. It was the first time he had ridden in the race that, by tradition, has had a tendency to put a premium on experience. As he and his 66-1 mount thundered past the winning post, nine lengths clear of second-placed Cappa Bleu, the feelings that engulfed him were not of triumph, but of disbelief.

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"People told me that I didn't look excited enough," Mania recalls. "But that was just because I could hardly believe it had happened. I was in shock more than anything else. I can remember most of the race well enough, but the finish was just crazy. It was like an out-of-body experience. It was like watching someone else winning it instead."

Chances are, next week he will be watching someone else winning it instead. Auroras Encore suffered a career-ending fracture at Don- caster in January and is now munching his way into genteel retirement at trainer Sue Smith's Craiglands yard in West Yorkshire. Mania's last act as reigning champion will be to lead the field out at Aintree next weekend, but he accepts that Mr Moonshine, his mount this year, is unlikely to repeat the glory Auroras Encore delivered 12 months ago.

Still, he can dream. "I had the choice of two horses - him or Vintage Star," he says. "I think Vintage Star is a class horse, but I think it might be a year too soon for him. Mr Moonshine ran in the race last year but didn't get home, didn't stay the trip, but he has been a better horse this year. I won on him a couple of times and he finished third in the Beecher Chase round the National fences in December.

"He's got the speed, he jumps tremendously well and he's been around twice before. It's just stamina that's the question, although that is a big part of it because there is no other race like it. If I can get him into a rhythm, keep jumping fence to fence, then you never know. If he finished in the first few and got into the prize-money I would be delighted."

Mania was a pretty useful rugby player in his youth. Those who saw him say that if he had bulked up he might even have played professionally. He still has his rugby connections, though, and his final act of last year's National day was to hurtle back up the M6 to parade the trophy at Netherdale, home of Gala rugby club, who had won their own sevens tournament there a few hours earlier. When people he had known all his life started asking him for autographs, the magnitude of his achievement hit home.

"It was crazy," the 24-year-old says. "It never stopped. As soon as I was off the horse it was interview after interview, the prize-giving, everything. I said last year that it would maybe sink in when I was lying on a beach in the summer-time, but I never actually made it to a beach. It was non-stop. I never got a minute to think about it.

"The whole experience has been amazing. I've done a few things that I would never have done without that. I've been able to meet some great people. There have been a lot of charity things. In the past I would never have been invited, but it has been an eye-opener and a lot of fun."

What wasn't a lot of fun was the fall he suffered the day after his National victory at Hexham when he was thrown by Stagecoach Jasper and kicked in the back by a following horse.

He was back in the saddle a couple of weeks later but he admits that he felt the pain until two months ago. "It's all good now," he smiled. "I'm fit and ready to hurt myself again."

Another life-changing event lay in store. In September, his girl-friend Edwina gave birth to son Rowan, their first child. He expected fatherhood would bring new pressures, but the opposite has been the case.

"There was almost less pressure," Mania says. "Maybe the combination of winning the National and becoming a father gave me confidence. I suppose the thing now is that I feel that I'm doing it for a reason, doing it to support the family.

"It changed the way I thought, but in a funny way I feel more relaxed. Some people suggested I should be more worried about getting hurt and things like that. I think in a way that I'm actually more dedicated, if that's the word."

Family life is likely to be a con- solation next weekend. Mr Moon-shine is being priced at shorter odds than Auroras Encore last year, but you sense that Mania is preparing himself for life as a past champion. "It will be a tough day actually," he says. "Obviously, I'll be excited that I'm riding in it again, but I'll be disappointed when it's over. I've only had one experience of riding in the race and it was a good one. When I have another experience, chances are it will be completely different.

"I think it will hit home if I don't win this year. I'll come in and see the winner and I will be thinking, 'shit, that was me last year'. When I see the winner doing all the things I was doing last year and everyone congratulating him I think I'll be on a major downer. As soon as that happens it is no longer my year, I'm not the champion any more."