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

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - GOLF / RACING - 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 best­placed of El­liott’s baker’s dozen to give him a first win in the race. The seven-yearold 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-anda-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.

Gor­don El­liott has 13 run­ners as he bids to win a first Ir­ish Grand Na­tional

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.