Wednesday 19 December 2018

National can tip scales in duel for title as Mullins and Elliott go all in

Big hitters are heavy handed for latest edition of Easter tradition

Gordon Elliott has 13 runners as he bids to win a first Irish Grand National. Photo: Sportsfile
Gordon Elliott has 13 runners as he bids to win a first Irish Grand National. Photo: Sportsfile

Aisling Crowe

Racing at Easter has been synonymous with Fairyhouse and the Irish Grand National for nigh on 150 years. Since Sir Robert Peel galloped around the Ratoath countryside and through the famous Ballyhack in 1870 to win the first running of the race, many legends of the sport have joined the Dubs on their day out to the races.

In case you read the above and thought immediately of today's date, the identity of the inaugural winner of the storied race is not an April Fool. Twenty years after the death of the founder of the modern Conservative Party, and the Metropolitan Police, and the man who grudgingly acceded to Catholic Emancipation but repealed the Corn Laws as the horrors of the Famine became known, his equine namesake raced into the history books.

More loved and adored figures from Irish history than the man from whose name derives both bobbies and peelers have been victorious since then, no more so than the great Arkle who defied 12 stone when winning the 1964 renewal for trainer Tom Dreaper and jockey Pat Taaffe.

Dreaper, who won the race on 10 separate occasions including from 1960 to 1966, was in the enviable position of training at the same time the two greatest steeplechasers who ever lived, according to the gurus of Timeform, and trained both of them to win the Irish Grand National. Flyingbolt's victory under the enormous weight of 12 stone 7 pounds in 1966 was the final one for both Dreaper and Taaffe, who finished his riding career with six wins in the race.

History is in the making at Fairyhouse and this Easter's festival is no exception as the €1.5 million of prizemoney on offer could prove pivotal in one of the most absorbing trainers' contests in recent memory.

Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins head into the final weeks of the National Hunt season locked in a battle for supremacy for the second successive season and Fairyhouse is the latest stop on the journey to the title.

The trainer's title is determined not by races won but by prizemoney earned and on Good Friday, when Irish racecourses, unlike Irish pubs, keep the lights turned off, Elliot led Mullins by just shy of €500,000, which is the total prize fund for tomorrow's Irish Grand National with the lion's share (€270,000) going to the winner.

Mullins has yet to win the race in his illustrious and astonishing training career but his father Paddy trained four Irish Grand National winners. Coincidentally, that is the number of horses his son fields in tomorrow's contest with joint-favourites Pairofbrowneyes and Bellshill housed in his Carlow yard.

Pairofbrowneyes was impressive when successful in a handicap chase in Gowran on March 10, his first run since joining Mullins from Barry Murphy's yard. Jockey Paul Townend was on board for that race and he has kept faith with the nine-year-old whose last win was more than two years previously, in December 2015.

David Mullins rides Bellshill, who is also 7/1 with race sponsors BoyleSports. The eight-year-old comes into the race on the back of victory in the Grade Three Bobbyjo Chase at Fairyhouse in February, his first run since finishing third to Might Bite in last year's RSA Chase at the Cheltenham Festival. Bellshill is a classy horse which was a Grade One bumper winner and over hurdles with strong stamina and form on heavy ground.

Naturally Mullins's two other horses will be the subject of much interest with Isleofhopeandreams, ridden by Danny Mullins, a 14/1 shot and Bryan Cooper's mount Kemboy at 25/1.

The Mullins family has the historical connection to the race but Elliott, a Meathman, had the revolutionary trainer Martin Pipe as his mentor. Pipe adapted scientific methods for training racehorses and dominated National Hunt racing with his radical ideas, now adapted by the vast majority of the sport. Elliott was an amateur jockey at his Pond House Stables in Dorset, from where Pipe sent out Omerta to win the 1991 renewal of the Irish Grand National, ridden by another local boy in Adrian Maguire.

Mindful of the incredible climax to last year's season when he led Mullins by €1m going into the final week of the campaign, only to lose out on a first title by €200,000, Elliott saddles 13 of the 30 runners in this year's race.

Monbeg Notorious, victorious in the Thyestes Chase at Gowran in late January, would appear to be the best-placed of Elliott's baker's dozen to give him a first win in the race. The seven-year-old has never finished out of the first four in his 11 starts to date and has been first or second in his five runs over fences. Partnered by Jack Kennedy, he will be aiming for his fourth win on the bounce tomorrow.

Writing on his Betfair blog, Elliott was very positive about Monbeg Notorious: "He is a lovely big sort who has really grown into himself lately. He absolutely loves a trip and the soft ground so this is ideal for him and I would be very hopeful he can finish in the shake-up."

Two more of the Elliott battalion who will relish the softer going at Fairyhouse tomorrow are Dounikos and Folsom Blue. The latest starts for both horses ended with contrasting emotions -Dounikos disappointed when pulled up in the RSA Chase at Cheltenham, while Folsom Blue put in one of his best recent performances when winning the National Trial at Punchestown.

"Dounikos is a big slow galloper who will enjoy conditions here. He has improved ten-fold this season and I was really happy with his run in the Flogas Chase at Leopardstown in February. The softer the ground the better for him so any rain over the weekend won't be an issue. Folsom Blue ploughed home in very testing conditions at Punchestown; he is a real mudlark so will love the ground. This has been his target since then and he is in the form of his life at home so I am very hopeful that we will see another good run from the 11-year-old."

While tomorrow's race may seem to be about two men and their tussle for the title, to ignore the rest of the field would be folly.

In 1995 Flashing Steel ridden by Jamie Osborne and trained by the late John Mulhern for his father-in-law Charlie Haughey carried 12 stone to Easter glory. Mall Dini does not have to carry the same welter burden that Flashing Steel did but he shares a connection to Irish political history as his owner Philip Reynolds is a son of the late Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, who succeeded Haughey as leader of Fianna Fáil.

Mall Dini was a staying-on second in the Kim Muir for jockey Patrick Mullins and only went down by half a length at the end of three-and-a-quarter miles in soft ground. He was a well-beaten fourth over course and distance to his stablemate Presenting Percy, who went on to win the Grade One RSA Chase at Cheltenham last month, back in December.

Also a Cheltenham Festival winner for Craughwell trainer Patrick Kelly and owner Reynolds, Mall Dini has failed to win since his Cotswolds victory in March 2016. A worrying stat is in ten runs over fences to date, the eight-year-old has yet to get his head in front.

Fairyhouse at Easter is not just about one race, with today's opening card featuring two Grade One contests. Willie Mullins's Laurina is the red-hot favourite to claim her first Grade One victory in the Irish Stallion Farms' Mares' Novice Hurdle Championship Final.

Her success in the Grade Two Trull House Stud Mares' Novice Hurdle at Cheltenham last month saw Laurina compared to Annie Power and even the legendary Dawn Run, such was the authority and potential inherent in her victory.

Another Cheltenham Festival-winning mare, Shattered Love, will try to ensure that her owner, Michael O'Leary, keeps the sponsorship money for the Grade One Ryanair Novice Gold Cup. The daughter of Yeats is aiming for a hat-trick of Grade One wins this season following her victories in Leopardstown's Neville Hotels Novice Chase and the JLT Novice Chase at Cheltenham. She is joined in the line-up by another of Elliott's Cheltenham winning octet - The Storyteller.

Sunday Indo Sport

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport