LIVERPOOL, England (Reuters) - Neptune Collonges snatched Grand National glory for jockey Daryl Jacob and trainer Paul Nicholls on Saturday but the world famous steeplechase was marred by two equine deaths, including Cheltenham Gold Cup winner and leading contender Synchronised.
The 33-1 outsider Neptune Collonges touched off Sunnyhillboy (16-1) and rider Richie McLernon in a photo finish at Aintree with just a nose separating the pair at the line.
Joint 8-1 favorite Seabass was five lengths further back in third place, having threatened at one stage to put Irish amateur Katie Walsh in the record books as the first female rider to win the race.
The thrilling finale was overshadowed by the fatal injuries suffered by Synchronised and According To Pete.
They followed unsavory scenes witnessed by millions of television viewers last year when there were also two deaths in the race while exhausted winner Ballabriggs had to be hastily dismounted after the finish line.
Synchronised, the focus of pre-race drama when he galloped off after jinking and dumping champion jockey Tony McCoy on the turf on the way to the start, fell on the first circuit of the four-and-a half-mile contest and had to be put down after suffering a broken hind leg.
The deaths are certain to put the Grand National under further scrutiny and renew calls by animal rights groups to ban the event, despite some of the more challenging fences being modified this year following a review into the 2011 race.
"After today we will, as always, be looking at all aspects of this year's race to see how we can improve safety further," Aintree managing director Julian Thick said in a statement.
The 2012 contest provided a first National success for both Irishman Jacob and champion trainer Nicholls, who is based in England's West Country and is best known for guiding Kauto Star and Denman to Gold Cup triumphs at Cheltenham.
"He (Neptune Collonges) is class, it is just fantastic," said a relieved Nicholls, winning the showpiece at the 53rd attempt after having his first runner in 1992.
"Neptune Collonges will retire now. What a fantastic horse he has been."
Nicholls paced nervously in the parade ring before the winner was officially announced while Jacob said he "hadn't known where the finishing line was".
Jacob, 28, added: "You cannot beat this. I have always told Paul Nicholls that someday I would ride him a National winner.
"It was very very tough race. I just kept my head down and kept going for all my worth. It was a massive, massive team effort and I'm very glad and lucky to be a part of it."
Neptune Collonges is the first grey to win the race since Nicolaus Silver in 1961.
Seabass, the subject of a huge morning gamble, and Walsh jumped the last of the 30 fences in first place but her hopes faded as the pair were overhauled up the long run in.
Sunnyhillboy led with 100 yards to go but an animated Jacob galvanized Neptune Collonges and the pair wore the leader down in the nick of time.
Walsh, having her first ride in the National, was thrilled to become the first female jockey to be in the top three.
"He gave me an unbelievable spin... I want to go out and do it all over again," she said.
"Up to the third last I was going okay. I pulled down my goggles and turning in Barry (Geraghty on joint favourite Shakalakaboomboom) said to me 'you're not going too bad', but I knew then I was never going to win. I was just delighted to be placed."
Last year's winner Ballabriggs (12-1) finished sixth. Just 15 of the 40 starters completed the race.
(Editing by Dave Thompson)