Griffin's grey aiming to be new King of Chepstow
The father-and-son team of Pat and James Griffin will strive to emulate their Dublin-based neighbour Jim Dreaper by plundering Saturday's rescheduled Coral Welsh National with resolute grey Portrait King.
Dreaper's famous 2008 victory with Notre Pere remains the only Irish-trained win in the prestigious Chepstow slog, which could also feature Dermot McLoughlin's Vics Canvas and Mouse Morris's Folsom Blue. The Griffins' small-scale Oldtown operation is situated close to Dreaper's Kilsallaghan base.
Portrait King will take his chance in the £120,000 three-mile-five-furlong feature under Sligo-born Derek Fox (right), who's based in Scotland with Lucinda Russell and has recently lost his claim.
Fate has already played a hand in Portrait King's participation, as plans to tackle the Welsh National in its original slot over Christmas were abandoned due to the inclement weather.
As an Eider Chase victor and a Punchestown Grand National trial and Conyngham Cup winner, the mud-loving 11-year-old looks tailor-made for it.
"We don't want to be tempting fate, but Portrait King is a horse that wants an extreme trip on testing ground and the Irish programme book for staying chasers is very poor, that's why we are looking across the water for him," the licence-holder's son James said yesterday as he made his way back from Donabate strand with the horse.
"The Welsh National is ideal. He has a lovely weight of 10st 6lb; he had 10st 2lb before Christmas, but some of the classier horses have come out. He was running a cracker in the Becher Chase at Aintree when he fell two-out. If he didn't win, he would have been in the three and he has been in great form since. He is a 33/1 shot but I think he will outrun his odds."
Should Portrait King win, a second Grand National tilt could be on the cards, with the Eider and Midlands National other options.
Pat Griffin, who still rides out at 74 years of age, was a prolific handler up to the early 1990s, winning the 1988 Thyestes Chase with Feltrim Hill Lad. However, his 31-year-old son has driven the stable's rejuvenation in the past 10 years, and things are different now.
Of their 21 winners in recent times, only one has been on home soil - in 2008. From 16 Irish runners this term, one placing has yielded €875; 24 runners in Britain have produced three winners, eight placings and prize money of £27, 725, or €37,863. It is a business model - mastered by Gordon Elliott - that many ambitious handlers have adopted to survive. Griffin, Denis Hogan, Stuart Crawford, Paul Stafford, Mark McNiff and Paul Gilligan are all regular cross-channel visitors.
They go to great lengths to attract owners, but feel that they get more value for their money by crossing the water. Since acquiring Portrait King out of Maurice Phelan's stable, Griffin, for example, has overseen the sale of the horse to Jim Beaumont and Douglas Pryde, who enjoyed National success with Aurora's Encore in 2013.
The duo also have Griffin's six-time Scottish winner Maggio pencilled in for this year's National. Griffin is targeting a graded novices' chase at Haydock for Captain Hox, a useful sort owned by the Ryans of Swordlestown Stud, a family that enjoyed Cheltenham success with Cork All Star.
He is a proactive individual, but echoes the frustrations of many of colleagues at the reality of life for professionals of his ilk in Ireland. "Most of our clients are British-based and it's something that we consciously target," he explains.
"We have just registered a new owner, Robert Claydon, with Horse Racing Ireland. He is happy to have a horse in training here, but his first runner will be at Ayr on Monday. That's where his horse Here Comes The Love will go because that's where he will be able to compete and the owner experience will be far better there. It is so much more enjoyable for them over there. Ireland is getting better at it, but we are a long way behind where we should be.
"Connections of placed horses in Britain are brought in for a drink, not just the winners. You are personally contacted early in relation to entries, not just a general email sent to the owners. When they say a three-course lunch, it's a proper, hot, buffet three-course lunch - not a beef roll. If you have a winner, there is a proper presentation after every race and you get a framed photo and a DVD. You get nothing like that here.
"Tickets - they cannot do enough to try and keep owners happy; in Ireland, it's a joke. I can go to any track on any day in Britain, big or small day, and get tickets, no problem. Here, you struggle to get an extra ticket for any connection. It's an absolute embarrassment.
"The owner experience entices people into the game in the UK. There is a better variety of options, with incentives like the interactive race, whereby any grade that is oversubscribed, they have specific race meetings reserved with just six races, so they can stick on an extra race to clear the backlogs. Here, the programme book is set in stone, and it is impossible for ordinary trainers to compete in maiden hurdles and the like. It is a two-tier system, and I don't mean any disrespect to Willie Mullins saying that. It just is."