Things We Learned » Grounds for change

Grounds for change

Amazing how quickly the ground changed at Fairyhouse last weekend. On Holy Thursday, three days before the meeting, the talk was of heavy ground that was raceable, and of any more rain that would not be welcome.

The official ground description on Sunday, the first day of the meeting, was soft, soft to heavy in places, and the times suggested that the places in which it was soft to heavy, or heavy even, greatly outnumbered the places in which it was soft.

By the time the Ladbrokes Irish Grand National was run on Monday, however, with an official description of yielding to soft, the ground was much more yielding than soft according to the riders, which was obviously in favour of Liberty Counsel, who loves good ground and who would have been a doubtful runner on heavy, Away We Go, who has won on good and good to firm ground, and Home Farm, a son of Presenting who won his maiden hurdle on yielding ground, and against proven soft ground horses like Rich Revival, a son of Turtle Island, who drifted markedly on-course. Of the four horses who filled the first four places, Sweeney Tunes is probably the one who wouldn’t have minded getting his toe in a little more, so he probably did really well to finish as close as he did.

On Tuesday, the ground was yielding overall, with good places on the hurdles track. Hopefully now we are in for a summer of it.

Elliott on fire

It was correct that all the focus should have been on Liberty Counsel and Dot Love and Ben Dalton and Ciaran Murphy and Irene Neale and Helen Murtagh last weekend. It was a phenomenal achievement for such a small operation to go and win the richest steeplechase in Irish racing, and it was further proof of Dot Love’s ability as a trainer after she sent out 66/1 shot Shadow Eile to finish fourth in the Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham last month off a near-five-month break.

However, there were a couple of other trainers who made their mark at the weekend as well, largely away from the public glare. Christy Roche and Robert Tyner both had doubles, while local trainer Eddie Cawley had just two runners at Fairyhouse for the weekend: Forever Gold, who was a good fourth in the big novices’ handicap hurdle on Sunday, and Brian Who, who was a well-backed winner of the Irish Field Handicap Hurdle on Monday.

Also, Gordon Elliott had a phenomenal weekend. From 13 runners on Sunday and Monday, Elliott had six winners (including three out of three at Cork), a second, a third and two fourths. That is a strike rated of 46%, and if Romanesco hadn’t fallen at the final fence in the Ladbrokes Irish Grand National, he was certain to have been placed at worst.

Among those winners were Realt Mor (Grade 1), Mala Beach (Grade 2), Roi De Mee (Grade 3) and Akorakor, who won the Racing Post (deal-or-no-deal) Bumper that has been won in the past by Tofino Bay, Last Instalment, Pandorama and, of course, Simonsig.

Elliott trained Silver Birch, the last Irish-trained winner of the Grand National, and the yard’s form is no liability for Chicago Grey and Tarquinius to carry into battle today.

Can’t or don’t?

It can’t have been easy for AP McCoy, choosing between Colbert Station and Sunnyhillboy today. The former is a highly-progressive staying chaser who won the Paddy Power Chase at Leopardstown, followed up over hurdles at Punchestown, and has been trained for the race by Ted Walsh all season; the latter is a wizened warrior, the type that tends to dominate in the Grand National, who was pulled up at Warwick the last time we saw him, but who was desperately unlucky not to win last year’s Grand National.

Sunnyhillboy is 10lb higher this time than he was last time and, in the back of your mind is the fact that, if the bob of Neptune Collonges’ grey head had gone the other way last year, Sunnyhillboy would be bidding to win back-to-back Grand Nationals today, and no horse has done that since Red Rum. Colbert Station has the potential to be a fair bit better than his handicap rating. Perhaps that is what swung it for the champ. Or maybe he just flipped a coin.

We have been here before. In 2010, AP had to choose between Can’t Buy Time and Don’t Push It. He took his time deciding then too but, in a sense, at the time it didn’t seem to really matter that much. Before AP made his decision and the money followed him, both horses were 33/1 shots.

It’s a good story. On the phone to the horses’ trainer Jonjo O’Neill an hour before he had to choose, in his indecisiveness AP asked the trainer to flip a coin. Jonjo said he flipped. Silence. I’d better flip it again. Silence and an audible smile as AP waited. You’re riding Don’t Push It.

After the race, owner JP McManus said that he’d love to get a lend of the coin that Jonjo used.

Ironic that the horses were named Can’t and Don’t because, as it turned out, AP could and did.

Celtic National

Remarkable the manner in which the rate of success of Irish-trained horses in the Grand National has mirrored the state of the Irish economy in recent years.

No Irish-trained winner between L’Escargot in 1975 and Bobbyjo in 1999, as we struggled to keep oil in the boiler and porridge on the table. Six winners in the nine years between Bobbyjo and Silver Birch in 2007, the years during which we talked about SUVs and mocha latticcinos and property portfolios. Then, from 2007 to 2012, with the Celtic Tiger such a fading memory that we wondered if he ever truly existed in the first place, when we got to understand what bailouts and debt forgiveness and bankruptcy terms were, not a winner. Not one.

Do National winners foster a strong economy, or does a strong economy facilitate National winners? With talk these days of bailouts nearing an end and Sale Agreed signs and green shoots and recovery, another Irish-trained Grand National winner could be imminent.

As easy as 1-2-3-4-5-6

With some bookmakers paying six places, here is my 1-2-3-4-5-6 for the Grand National, for what it’s worth:

On His Own, Chicago Grey, Rare Bob, Cappa Bleu, Seabass, Quiscover Fontaine.

© The Irish Field, 6th April 2013