Sunday 25 June 2017

Big time beckons for Oscar

Martin Lynch hopes patience is a virtue in Oscar Time's bid for Grand National glory, writes Ian McClean

Ian McClean

It was Thursday and Martin Lynch had made the considerable drive in the horse-box from his Castletown Geoghegan midlands base to Cork racecourse with just one horse. "I don't go racing very often these days. I suppose I only go when I've got a live outsider." The mare Maple Lady came from last to first to win the concluding bumper in the inexperienced hands of the trainer's 20-year-old son Mark -- providing him with his first ever winner under rules.

The trainer may have considered his mare a "live outsider" but it wasn't a view shared by the bookmakers who sent her off at 40/1. Nonetheless, it made the trip home feel a lot less considerable. For here was a tiny family-run yard that had not seen a winner so far in 2011. Nor in all of 2010. But had to go back to the Paddy Power Chase in 2009 for its last encounter with a winner's enclosure.

On the trainers' cold list, Lynch was in the section labelled deep-frozen. Fittingly, he couldn't have chosen a more convenient time to strike form as next Saturday he will be pointing the horse-box in the overseas direction of Aintree, escorting the cargo of the second favourite for the world's most famous steeplechase -- the Grand National.

They say there is always a story in the National, but with Oscar Time there is a whole storybook. Now a 10-year-old, Oscar Time first came into Martin Lynch's life as part of a group of unbroken three-year-olds bought for the purpose of selling on. Part B of the plan never materialised and Oscar has been part of the Middleton furniture, where Lynch trains just 12 horses, ever since.

The stoutness of his pedigree always meant Oscar Time would be a long-term project, but his trainer saw the flicker of what was to come right from his very first work-out. It took him until his sixth attempt to get off the mark in a bumper, however, but when he did he beat no less than future dual Cheltenham Festival winner Weapon's Amnesty at Thurles just over three years ago.

"My instructions to the jockey have always been 'do the very best you can without punishing him'. In his life he never got a hiding to be second or third," remarks the trainer who adds how the owner was very patient and how "his hurdles career was only ever a stepping stone" to his true vocation as a long-distance steeplechaser.

Connections' kindness has been repaid by the horse. As one well-practised at optimising limited resources, Lynch is a realist and admits without a hint of regret that "this is not a championship horse" and as a consequence consciously navigated Oscar Time's novice chase career with a view to handicaps the following season. The strategy was rewarded with a bumper payout in the Paddy Power Chase on his first outing over fences in his second season following two preparatory races over hurdles.

"It is true to say we set him up for it," accepts the trainer, but planning and execution are rarely so well aligned. Having artfully executed the winter target, thoughts turned then to spring. "We could afford to set him up for one more race," recalls Lynch, but having arrived there with every chance in the Irish National, Oscar Time eventually finished second at Fairyhouse in April, prompting jockey Robbie Power to exult on dismounting "Roll on Aintree!"

Rather than rolling on, it was after the Irish National that offers started to roll in for Oscar Time as prime Aintree material. One generous offer proved more than the owner could refuse and Lynch faced the prospect of losing the horse to the UK. The trainer asked for some Oscar Time of his own to see if he could find someone to match the offer.

Martin's first call was to Robert Waley-Cohen whom he had ridden for and known during his stint as a jockey in Banbury during the 1980s and early '90s. "To be honest I never thought I wasn't going to be able to get someone to buy him," recalls the trainer, unperturbed. "I rang Robert on a Monday, he and Sam came over on a Thursday and the deal was done before they left the yard."

Martin Lynch's most curious connection with Waley-Cohen in a Grand National context dates back to a schooling fall endured by the jockey at Towcester on the owner's Wont Be Gone Long, leading to his instant and premature retirement from the saddle in 1993 with crushed vertebrae.

"A week later I watched Richard Dunwoody get the starting tape wrapped around his neck aboard the same horse," in the void National famous for all the wrong reasons. If some see the purchase of Oscar Time as a form of compensation to the small-time trainer, the humble Lynch doesn't even consider there's a debt to repay.

The Midlands trainer remembers Sam Waley-Cohen as a small boy and realises only too well that the media spotlight on Oscar Time is amplified by the fact that young Sam is aiming to become the first amateur in history, and only the fifth jockey ever, to complete a Gold Cup/Grand National double.

His involvement with the Waley-Cohens gave his Long Run Gold Cup experience an added dimension. "I think I rode every stride," says Lynch as he recalls the race. "He (Sam) had to take a lot of stick before the race but he took it all like a gentleman. And to give that interview on horseback after the race, after the ride he'd given that horse in the last mile . . ." Asked if the experience will help his confidence for the challenge ahead next Saturday, Lynch replies diffidently "Well, it won't do him any harm!"

However, the real mark of Sam the Man came via text very early on Sunday morning less than 36 hours after the most important moment of his life. Lynch's phone message read: "What about a school before Aintree?"

Martin Lynch's own Grand National experience as a jockey was limited to falling at the first in Aldaniti's year and partnering Cool Ground, which was bidding for a Gold Cup/Grand National double of his own, to a disappointing 10th place finish in 1992. His UK experience as a trainer is more limited still; he has sent just one horse so far, Colonel Yeager, to finish fourth in the Supreme Novices at Cheltenham in 1999.

Yet Lynch is typically unflapped and his attitude to the occasion is quintessential "Triumph and Disaster" Kipling. "At this stage of life (52) I can't panic!" With it, travels a refreshing realism when asked about his horse's readiness for the battle. "He certainly should get the trip but what I would question is his battling ability. Put it this way, he is more Dick Turpin than Gladiator. I think it is that he just does so much on the bridle. If he is upsides in front at the last he is too early. I'll be asking Sam to come and win his race at the Elbow."

Martin Lynch's granite yard at the Middleton Estate is replete with historical ups-and-downs. Lt-Colonel Harold Boyd-Rochfort bred the 1946 Derby winner Airborne there. The last trainer to hold a licence at the estate was Barney Curley, who famously advertised Middleton House in a lottery in 1984 which subsequently landed the colourful Curley a jail sentence.

At its lowest point it housed nothing but swine. By tea time next Saturday, Oscar Time could put the hat on all of it.

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