Saturday 16 December 2017

Grand National history still following Jim Dreaper

Trainer Jim Dreaper with Venetien De Mai who runs in tomorrow’s Irish Grand National Photo: Caroline Quinn
Trainer Jim Dreaper with Venetien De Mai who runs in tomorrow’s Irish Grand National Photo: Caroline Quinn

Aisling Crowe

Ireland feels the hand of history heavy on her shoulders this week as Easter 2016 brings more than the usual chocolate eggs and fluffy bunnies. A century ago the GPO was the maternity ward for the bloody, early stages of labour that eventually gave birth to a nation. Barely 16 miles away from that totemic icon of rebellion and a people beginning their rise to nationhood, Easter Monday 1916 at Fairyhouse was, like in 2016, Irish Grand National day.

While rebels stormed Boland's Mills and Jacob's Biscuit Factory more than 25,000 people enjoyed a day at the races and Ireland's most important race of the year was won by All Sorts, trained by Richard Cleary.

Their victory may be a mere footnote in the volumes of Irish history but in the archives of the Irish Grand National no name commands more pages than that of the Dreaper family.

Ten times Tom Dreaper sent out the winner of the three miles and five furlong chase from his yard in north county Dublin, amongst them the two greatest National Hunt horses that ever lived, and four more winners of the Fairyhouse race have been trained in that famed establishment by his son Jim.

The Rising is not the only anniversary worth recollecting tomorrow as this year's race marks a half century since the final, and perhaps most outstanding, of Tom Dreaper's ten winners.

"Flyingbolt's victory in 1966 was one of the all-time great performances in racing," states Jim Dreaper. "Three weeks previously he won the Champion Chase at Cheltenham and finished third in the Champion Hurdle and then went on to Fairyhouse where he beat Height Of Fashion, carrying 12 stone seven pounds."

Height Of Fashion had 40 pounds less than the winner and Flyingbolt conceded 42 pounds to the third-placed horse. It was a truly remarkable feat and one which will never be replicated. Cause Of Causes, the top-weight for tomorrow's renewal, has the comparatively feather weight of 11 stone 10 pounds to carry.

Dreaper's chasers dominated the Irish Grand National and Flyingbolt's incredible victory was the seventh successive win in the race for the Dublin trainer. In a golden era for chasing, the two brightest stars in the firmament resided in Dreaper's yard and both Arkle and Flyingbolt added the Fairyhouse showpiece to their conquests.

No Gold Cup winners or Champion Chase heroes will turn out this year and rarely do modern trainers run their best horses in handicaps. Dreaper explains why racing has changed utterly.

"In the old days when my father had those great horses there weren't very many good races for them. In Ireland the weight-for-age races didn't exist so good horses had to run in handicaps and that's why Arkle, Flyingbolt, Fortria and all those good horses ran in the Irish National and other handicaps."

The emphasis has changed for many in racing with handicaps now seen as less prestigious because of the proliferation of graded races and the best horses are now aimed at those contests. However, Dreaper argues that it is handicaps which keep the sport alive for the majority of those involved.

"Racing would not survive without handicaps. Most people depend on them for their horses and theoretically every horse has a chance of winning if it runs up to his best. Handicaps keep people in the sport. The Irish Grand National is a huge prize and a race with a great tradition, the biggest of the year."

The history of the Irish Grand National is impossible to record without the Dreaper family and Jim has the distinction of training the only horse to win the race three times. Brown Lad was successful in 1975 and 1976 with his third triumph arriving two years later.

Their connection to the race springs from a sense of place and a love of chasers. Fairyhouse is their local track, the nearest course to their home in Greenogue, and every horse which arrives in the yard comes there as an embryonic chaser.

"We try to buy chasers but we wouldn't complain if we had a champion hurdler," he says.

In the form of the seven-year-old Venetien De Mai, Jim hopes he has unearthed another Irish Grand National winner. Winner of the Leinster National at Naas last month, Ann and Alan Potts' gelding would be Dreaper's fifth winner of the race. He will not be burdened with the weights that Flyingbolt and Arkle so effortlessly bore but the handicapper has added to the lead which must be carried in Venetien De Mai's saddle.

"He performed well at Naas," Dreaper says, "but he has gone up ten pounds in the handicap and that won't help him. Jonathan Moore claimed five pounds off him that day but the handicapper didn't count it and he will have 15 pounds more to carry tomorrow than he did at Naas because Jonathan Burke, who rides him tomorrow, won't be claiming."

The heavier burden was not a surprise to the trainer. "We expected it. We hoped for seven and got ten pounds but we needed to run him to get him into this race. He had to go up a few pounds to make the final cut for the Irish Grand National."

If Venetien De Mai triumphs tomorrow his journey home to the Dreaper yard will be a matter of minutes. The 1916 winner faced an epic trek home as the trains were halted and British Army officers, enjoying a day out at the races when the insurgents struck, commandeered what vehicles they could to hasten their return to barracks.

It took five days for All Sorts to walk the 60 miles home to his stable in Bishopstown House, outside Rosemount in Co Westmeath, and the horse with history's hand resting heaviest on his withers tomorrow had to overcome problems of his own on the road to Fairyhouse.

"He wasn't thriving and tests showed that his liver was not working as well as it should," says Dreaper. "We were able to treat that and he seems to be much better now."

An unbeaten stint in the point-to-pointing sphere promised much when he began his track career but that potential didn't seem to have transferred to his novice hurdling career. Four podium places from his first four outings in maiden hurdles were not what had been expected of Venitien De Mai but with his health problems treated, a hurdles success was finally his and he has blossomed since switching to chasing.

Unbeaten in his three completed starts over fences, the defeat of his stable companion Goonyella at Naas means he is one of the leading contenders for the Irish Grand National. The race is a daunting task for a novice chaser but victory for the inexperienced horses is not without precedent. Being surrounded by 28 other horses is one of the most challenging aspects of the experience Venitien De Mai is faced with.

"The big field will be different for him as most of his point-to-points were in relatively small fields so he is a little short of experience jumping in a crowd of horses," Dreaper adds.

Goonyella, second to Venitien De Mai when conceding the guts of two stone to the younger horse at Naas, sits out this dance to wait for the longer set at Aintree on April 9.

He will also have the opportunity to create history for the Dreaper family as the Grand National is one of the few chases to have eluded them so far.

"I rode in it once in 1971 and finished second by a neck on Black Secret trained by my father," reveals the man who is also the only Irish trainer to have won the Welsh Grand National.

Goonyella himself won the Midlands National in 2015 and was second in the Scottish Grand National later that year, a staying chaser of some stamina.

"It would be nice for both horses to win," Dreaper adds. "You have got to have ambition in this game."

Anniversaries do not come loaded with more significance than this Easter and this Irish Grand National. A century since Ireland irrevocably took her first steps down the long road to freedom, half a century since Flyingbolt's legendary victory at Fairyhouse, history's call would echo through the decades were Venitien De Mai to add to the Dreaper family's record in the Irish Grand National tomorrow.

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