Neptune Collonges became the first grey winner of the John Smith's Grand National since 1961 and added the only major prize missing from trainer Paul Nicholls' trophy collection in an excruciatingly tight finish at Aintree.

Neither Jonjo O'Neill, the trainer of runner-up Sunnyhillboy, who was later to find his Gold Cup winner Synchronised had lost his life in action, nor Nicholls, were quite sure whether it was to be their day as the pair flashed past the line together before a margin of a nose was announced in favour of the 33-1 chance.

Neptune Collonges and Daryl Jacob had greater momentum than Richie McLernon and Sunnyhillboy (16-1), hauling himself over the line just in front to virtually secure Nicholls yet another trainers' championship and help owner John Hales ease the pain of his most wretched Liverpool memory.

Hales, a key figure in the toy-making business, witnessed the death of his greatest horse and another grey, One Man, at this meeting in 1998.

He quickly announced the retirement of Neptune Collonges, who formed the admittedly lower-profile final member of Nicholls' outstanding chasing trinity, finishing third behind Denman and Kauto Star in the Gold Cup four years ago, as well as taking three Irish Grade Ones.

Jacob attempted to negate the impact of the 11st 6lb on his back by settling him quietly towards the rear of the field, cutting corners when he could and letting him find his stride as many around either failed to complete the daunting obstacles or found their stamina reserves running dry.

Seabass, the 8-1 joint-favourite, had given Katie Walsh every possible chance of becoming a first female National winner until the final fence, but it was down to two serious contenders on the unforgiving run-in.

There was only one grey hero last century, Nicolaus Silver 51 years ago, and Neptune Collonges was finishing just that crucial touch more rapidly for the shortest possible winning distance before a dead-heat is announced.

Jacob dedicated the moment to his late best friend Kieran Kelly, a highly accomplished jockey himself.

"I didn't know where the winning line was but I knew that, inch by inch, I was starting to grind him down," he said.

"Luckily enough the line came and we held on just enough to get there.

"Nipper (Neptune Collonges) was going as fast at the start as he was at the end - he knew what pace he was going and I just trusted him on it. I don't think he missed a beat the whole way round.

"Kieran looked after me when I worked for Dessie Hughes and he virtually kicked me out of the house to go and ride in England so without him I wouldn't be here.

"It is the same with Robert and Sally Alner - I'm just happy to repay them for what they did."

Nicholls had saddled 52 previous runners, getting closest with runner-up Royal Auclair in 2005.

He said: "I kept saying to my wife Georgie that he was probably the best horse we've run in the race - if it wasn't for Kauto and Denman he would have won a Gold Cup.

"He's been placed in Gold Cups, he's won Grade Ones, he stays and he's genuine. Gold Cup form counts for an awful lot and Daryl went the brave man's route and little short-cuts make all the difference."

Nicholls went on: "It's obviously a great race to win, but we've not had the best of luck in it.

"We've won a first Champion Hurdle this year and I had given up on the championship after the day Nicky (Henderson) has had today, so it's a surprise. I ain't going to win it next year so we need to regroup.

"This was going to be his last race and he'll be retired now. He can go out in a field over the summer with Denman and Kauto Star and have a wonderful home (with Hales) for life. Good old Neptune."

Hales was understandably moved.

"I just wanted him to get round safe and I never dreamed he would win it. I thought the handicapper had given him 6lb too much," he said.

"I have nothing against Aintree but after what happened a few years ago with One Man, the place has owed me that one, so thank you Aintree.

"It split the family coming here. My wife was 50-50, my daughter couldn't face it. She has gone showjumping down in South Wales - she has probably jumped off the horse if she is in the middle of the round!

"We've nothing against Aintree. We love coming here and this year we've come up trumps."

John Smith's Grand National - Where they finished

1 Neptune Collonges (33-1)
2 Sunnyhillboy (16-1)
3 Seabass(8-1 joint-favourite)
4 Cappa Bleu (16-1)
5 In Compliance
6 Ballabriggs
7 Hello Bud
8 Tharawaat
9 Shakalakaboomboom
10 Swing Bill
11 The Midnight Club
12 Planet Of Sound
13 Neptune Equester
14th Calgary Bay
15th Midnight Haze
Fence 1 Viking Blond (fell)
Fence 2 West End Rocker (fell), Junior (fell)
Fence 5 State Of Play (unseated), Rare Bob (brought down), Chicago Grey (brought down)
Fence 6 Synchronised (fell)
Fence 7 Alfa Beat (fell)
Fence 8 Black Apalachi (fell), Organisedconfusion (unseated), Becauseicouldntsee (unseated), Tatenen (unseated), Killyglen (unseated)
Fence 10 Treacle (fell), Arbor Supreme (unseated)
Fence 11 Giles Cross (pulled up)
Fence 15 Always Right (unseated)
Fence 17 Quiscover Fontaine (fell)
Fence 19 Deep Purple (pulled up), Vic Venturi (refused)
Fence 21 Fence omitted
Fence 22 On His Own (fell), According To Pete (brought down), Mon Mome (pulled up), Postmaster (pulled up)
Fence 27 Weird Al (fell)