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Gibney lauds Lion king

DESPITE yesterday's Ladbrokes Irish Grand National being a sensational result for the sponsors and their bookmaking colleagues, few were in a mood to begrudge the winning connections.

Following Flemenstar bringing the Powers Gold Cup back to its old prestige on Sunday, and proving the small man has just as good a chance of competing as any in National Hunt racing, yesterday it was Kells trainer Tom Gibney who further emphasised that point as he trained Lion Na Bearnai to Grand National glory.

A trainer of just five horses, Gibney worked wonders with the 10-year-old to prove that his recent 50/1 win in a Grade Two novice chase at Navan wasn't just quite the shock it appeared at the time.

Amazingly, the 10-year-old was only rated 108 prior to his Navan success and he couldn't even win off that mark after being well beaten in the Munster National at Cork and again at Fairyhouse before Christmas.

However, a hike in the weights for his Navan win saw him rise up to 135 which assured connections of a handicap mark high enough to run in the race that was always their plan, but as Gibney admitted: "We didn't think he'd get himself up the ratings the way he did!"

This was Lion Na Bearnai's 29th racecourse start, but only his third win, the first of those came last year -- four years and 25 runs after he made his debut.

For his former amateur jockey trainer, who was formerly based with Noel Meade and Andrew Heffernan and won a GPT at Galway, this was just like winning a maiden hurdle in that he was so calm and collected afterwards.

The Kells-based handler admitted: "It's unbelievable, it just went copybook ever since the last day and I was afraid to say anything because things were going so well and they usually don't."

Lion Na Bearnai's two wins were Gibney's only triumphs of this season, but reaching the pinnacle yesterday made up for the hard grafting.

"I'm struggling since the day I got the licence out five years ago," said the 38-year-old.

Surprise

"We had four horses that ran last year, three of them won, but sure unless you're making the headlines nobody knows you exist."

There is no doubt that Gibney was creating the headlines yesterday, though, as his long-term plan came off, albeit as a surprise even to himself.

"This has been on the agenda since he was second in the Porterstown Chase in 2011. This has been the plan ever since, but I thought it might be hard to get him up to get him into the race. The shock was the way we got into it."

Four Commanders was sent off the 8/1 favourite and Start Me Up, who was also behind the winner at Navan, was sent off at half his odds yesterday, but despite his 33/1 price and huge hike in the ratings Lion Na Bearnai, Tom Gibney and Andrew Thornton proved that it was no fluke.

"Our attitude was that he ran to that mark the last day so if he did it once, why wouldn't he do it again?

"He was the first horse I ever bought at the sales. He cost eight or nine thousand and was one of the cheap ones at the time (six years ago)."

Navan native Andrew Thornton was also enjoying his biggest moment since taking out his jockey licence for the second time five years ago.

Thornton initially began as a 17-year-old, but limited opportunities meant that he quit the professional side of the game to concentrate on pony racing instead.

At the age of 26 he decided to give it a go again and now mixes it between flat and jumps and on just his second ride in the Grand National (fifth previously on Agus a Vic), he was victorious. "He's tough and jumped like a stag," said Thornton. "It's unbelievable.

"He pricked his ears back when he got to the front but once he was headed he just kept battling."

Of the winning trainer, Thornton said: "Tom is no green horn.

"He won a GPT as an amateur and was with Noel Meade for years. He is a very good trainer and had him spot on today."

Thornton made the decision earlier in the winter that he would be concentrating himself on getting as many flat rides as possible and, indeed, is due to be in action at Dundalk tomorrow evening.

"I got my licence out first when I was 17 but I couldn't get going and jacked it in.

"For years, a good friend of mine was onto me to give it another go and eventually I did and had a great start riding 22 winners in my first season."

Thornton is the first Irish-based claiming rider to win the race since Ross Geraghty on The Bunny Boiler 10 years ago.


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