Sunday 23 November 2014

Few certainties on people's day

Since the heydey of the Dreapers, nobody has dominated the Irish Grand National, writes Ian McClean

Ian McClean

Published 20/04/2014 | 02:30

1 April 2013; Liberty Counsel, with Ben Dalton up, on the way to winning the Ladbrokes Irish Grand National Steeplechase ahead of second place Away We Go, with Paul Townend up, right. Fairyhouse Easter Racing Festival, Fairyhouse Racecourse, Co. Meath. Picture credit: Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE
Away We Go (right) tries again to win the Irish National having finished second to Liberty Counsel (left) in last year's renewal. Photo: Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE

The eternal seduction of horseracing for its fan-base is the personal historical association with it. And history, as they say, goes back a long way.

For the Irish Grand National, newly-sponsored by Boylesports, that's as far as 1870 when a horse named Sir Robert Peel won the inaugural edition. (Racing has always been great at contemporaneous names. I'm scanning today's list for Nomakeupselfie but it doesn't seem to appear.)

Most of us remember our racing firsts, usually through a family member. First racecourse appearance. First winner. First Derby. First Gold Cup. I remember first backing the Irish National winner in 1983 when Bit Of A Skite won with a feather-weight for JP McManus, who this year fields six of the 30 lining up. I can remember Tied Cottage winning in 1979 but have a blurred memory at best of the Brown Lad era during the 1970s.

Jim Dreaper's early memories of the Irish National on Easter Monday will go back further than most, but his association with the most famous steeplechase on the Irish calendar understandably runs deeper than others. His Greenogue Stables near Ashbourne has supplied the winner 14 times, beginning with Prince Regent way back in 1942. Father Tom's name was on the licence for 10 of those victories, which included Arkle's win in 1964. And how fitting it is that a permanent life-size bronze monument of Ireland's most famous historical equine asset should be unveiled in Ashbourne this weekend to coincide with the Fairyhouse Easter Festival.

The present Master of Greenogue was just nine years old when attending his first Irish National in 1960 to witness Olympia win and record the first of seven straight Irish National wins for the yard, which included Fortria in 1961 and Flyingbolt which carried 12-7 to victory in 1966. Jim once recalled to me: "For me it was just the way it was. I thought it was just what you did, you went to Fairyhouse, won the National, went home. Came back next year."

When the reins passed to Jim due to his father's ill-health, the rookie trainer wasted little time in continuing the Dreaper hegemony, first with Arkle's half-brother Colebridge, followed by Brown Lad, which triumphed in three of the next four renewals and is still the only triple winner of the race.

It is safe to say there is nothing in today's field to remotely touch the iconic figures of Arkle, Flyingbolt or Brown Lad. After the withdrawal of entries Don Cossack, Bog Warrior, (Kim Muir winner) Spring Heeled and Double Seven, top-weight Cantlow is rated just 150 (a staggering 62lbs below Timeform's figurative 212 accorded to Arkle), yet that will matter little tomorrow afternoon to Jim Dreaper who is chasing his first victory in the race since those now distant glory days as he loads up two live chances.

Seven-year-old Goonyella just missed the cut for the Aintree National by one this year and has a score to settle with the Fairyhouse race as his saddle slipped when well-fancied for it last year. Dreaper has another credible contender in fellow seven-year-old Los Amigos, which bids to improve on his second to subsequent Gold Cup runner-up On His Own in the Thyestes in January. However, in common with many others in the field, both would prefer softer ground than the present Irish Easter heatwave will afford.

The race popularly known as 'The Race of the People' in recent seasons has, fittingly perhaps, been dominated by the small man – with the unhouseholdly names of Dot Love, Gibney, Motherway and Buckler appearing on the trophy in four of the past five years. Willie Mullins, for the record, doesn't have an Irish National on his illustrious CV and tries again with Away We Go which finished a narrow second here last year. And just like last year, the 11-year-old will be without the services of the injured Ruby Walsh.

Also missing is AP McCoy following his Aintree four-day whip suspension, coincidentally aboard Diakali trained by Mullins. This can only be frustrating for McCoy considering retainer JP McManus is throwing six at the dartboard. However, the champion jockey's sanguine reasoning on BBC Radio 5 on Friday night was that considering how much difficulty he had choosing between just two at the Cheltenham Festival, it would be highly improbable he would get the right one out of six in the Irish National.

Barry Geraghty, meantime, has come in for the ride on the leading McManus hope Shutthefrontdoor, but his selection (upended McCoy twice at Cheltenham) hasn't been based on the rider's previous record in the Fairyhouse race. Geraghty reflects: "I've ridden in it about 15 or 16 times and never won. I've probably ridden about five or six favourites and I think fifth or sixth is as good as I've got. My brother Ross won on The Bunny Boiler and he's never shy about reminding me!"

An intriguing historical footnote is that in 1880 William Boyd, a farmer and breeder from Two Mile House in Naas, uniquely owned the winner of both the Irish National (Controller) and the Irish Derby (King Of The Bees) some two-and-a-half months later. Both winners were out of the same mare, Winged Bee.

We've had two improbable results (50/1 and a 33/1) in the last two outings of the Fairyhouse feature, but the likelihood of a repeat of the scenario of 1880 . . . even Carlsberg don't do that improbable.

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