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Jim Dreaper

Jim Dreaper remembers his first Irish Grand National very well. Easter Monday 1960, he was nine years old. Olympia won the race, trained by his dad, the legendary Tom Dreaper.

“I remember asking why Toss Taaffe was riding Olympia, and not Pat Taaffe,” says Jim now, relaxed on his couch in his sitting room. “I was told that Pat was too heavy. That confused me. Sure wasn’t he the same weight as he had been the day before?”

Jim went back to Fairyhouse the following year, and his dad won the Irish National again with Fortria. (Pat Taaffe rode that one.) He went back the next year, and his dad won it again with Kerforo. And the following year, and the following year. Tom Dreaper trained the winners of seven Irish Grand Nationals in a row, from Olympia in 1960 to Flyingolt in 1966, and including Arkle in 1964 along the way. It brought Tom Dreaper’s tally in the Irish National to an unmatchable 10.

As far as young Jim was concerned, that was what you did on Easter Monday: you went to Fairyhouse and you won the Irish Grand National.

“I was aware of the level of expectation that surrounded Arkle,” he recalls. “He had just beaten Mill House in the Gold Cup, and he was giving so much weight to all his rivals, but that was what made him great. To be able to give all that weight to those good horses and beat them. If you are the best horse, the Gold Cup should be the easiest race for you, because every horse carries the same weight in the Gold Cup. But to be able to do what Arkle did in handicaps. That was what set him apart.”

It is fitting, then, that yesterday, 50 years after Arkle’s first Gold Cup, 50 years after his only Irish Grand National, the long-awaited statue of Arkle was unveiled on the main street in Ashbourne, just down the road from the Dreaper yard, just down the road from Fairyhouse. The project has taken three years to come to fruition, and it is one in which the Dreaper family have been deeply involved, but it has been well worth it.

“There was talk of putting him on a racecourse,” says Jim, “but then he would have only been seen by racegoers. The main street in Ashbourne is a good place for him. And he looks good, Emma MacDermott has captured him well, and they have captured Pat Taaffe. The expression on his face. Tom (Taaffe) said that he shed a tear when he saw it.”

After Tom Dreaper retired in 1972, and Jim took out his own licence, it wasn’t long before he was upholding the family tradition. Jim won the Irish National in 1974 with Arkle’s half-brother Colebridge, then he won three of the four renewals between 1975 and 1978 with Brown Lad.

“Brown Lad was an unusual steeplechaser,” the trainer says, “in that he didn’t really like jumping fences initially. He only carried 10st 5lb the first time he won it. But he gradually got the hang of it, and he was able to win it under 12st 2lb as a 12-year-old in 1978. He was one of the best staying chasers never to win the Gold Cup.”

After Brown Lad, meager Irish National pickings. It isn’t that Dreaper hasn’t had plenty of top class horses since Brown Lad. Ten Up won the Gold Cup in 1975 and top class horses like Carvill’s Hill and Harcon and Merry Gale and Notre Pere followed. But the fact remains that the Dreaper name has not made it onto the Irish National roll of honour since 1978. Notre Pere finished third in 2008, but there hasn’t been a winner.

This year, he is set to be double-handed. Los Amigos had a small setback on Thursday, but he is back on track. He ran big races in the Thyestes Chase and the Leinster National on his two most recent runs and he goes there with a big chance. Like Goonyella, he is a young staying chaser who could have a little in hand of the handicapper. Dreaper reckons that he has a better chance of winning the Irish National than he has had in years. Or since last year anyway.

Goonyella was well fancied for the Irish National last year as a six-year-old, but his saddle slipped early on in the race, and his rider had no option but to pull him up.

“It was just one of those things. Jamie (Flynn) was riding with a small saddle, and a small saddle is always more likely to slip forward than a big saddle. Goonyella was a little keen and the saddle went forward. Jamie had to pull him up. It was a pity, because we thought we had him in great form going into last year’s race.”

Eighth in a bumper on his only run for Nigel Twiston-Davies, Goonyella won a point-to-point at Lisronagh in December 2011 on his first run for Dreaper. Alan and Ann Potts’ horse progressed through point-to-points, won a hunters’ chase in December 2012 by a distance, and finished a close-up third behind Salsify and Tammys Hill – the winners of the last three Cheltenham Foxhunters between them – in the Raymond Smith Memorial Hunters’ Chase at Leopardstown in February last year. Hunter chase form does not get any stronger than that.

After his Irish National mis-hap, Goonyella rounded off last season by winning a good handicap chase at Punchestown over three miles and six furlongs, thereby proving his stamina for Monday’s extreme test.

“Strange thing,” says the trainer. “People wonder about horses when they step up from two and a half to three miles, whether or not they will stay. But when they stay three miles, they tend to think that, once they stay three miles they will stay three and a half, or three miles and five furlongs. Not all three-mile chasers will stay three and a half. But we know that our fellow does.”

Goonyella hasn’t won this season. Not yet. But he wasn’t beaten far in the Troytown Chase, and you can easily excuse him a fairly lack-lustre run in the Welsh National in December, as he had to travel a circuitous route to Chepstow that day, the high winds wreaking havoc with travel plans.

His most recent run in a novice hurdle at Clonmel in February – his first run ever over hurdles – when he finished second to subsequent Cheltenham Festival winner Don Poli, was much more encouraging. Although Jim Dreaper, ever the realist, is not getting carried away.

“People have been getting very excited about his Clonmel run since Don Poli won at Cheltenham, and we were only beaten about three lengths. But my dad always said that you judge a horse by what he beat, not by what beat him, and I’d say outside of the winner, it wasn’t a brilliant race.”

Realist or not, however, you cannot escape the feeling that the trainer has his horse very well, and that he is very hopeful of a big run tomorrow.

“A little bit of rain would help us. He does go on good ground, most horses go on good ground, but he stays so well that softer ground might slow the others up a little. I would say he is more relaxed this year than he was last year. He takes everything in his stride. He may be on a higher intellectual plain to the rest of us. Sometimes you feel that he is just putting up with us.”

And his trainer is more than happy to put up with him.

© The Sunday Times, 20th April 2014