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Grand National hero

When Don Cossack won the Cheltenham Gold Cup last month, owner Michael O’Leary said that, for a racehorse owner, things didn’t get any better than that.  Well, yesterday, things did.  An Aintree Grand National to go with a Cheltenham Gold Cup, with an Irish Grand National sandwiched in between in a magical three-week tale that has to be shelved in the Fiction section.

Yesterday was different though.  There are no assurances in this theatre of National Hunt racing, but Don Cossack was favourite for the Gold Cup and there is a certain level of nervous expectation that goes with that, even if you try to hide if from yourself.  And that is the type of horse that Michael O’Leary and his brother Eddie source to race in the maroon and white of Gigginstown House, potential Gold Cup contenders, embryo Gold Cup horses.

Gigginstown House Stud had won the Gold Cup before too, 10 years ago with War Of Attrition.  That didn’t mean that it was any easier to win it again, nor that Don Cossack’s victory at Cheltenham this year meant any less to Michael O’Leary or to the Gigginstown operation than War Of Attrition’s did.  On the contrary, the magnitude of the owner’s emotion was apparent in the winner’s enclosure at Cheltenham.  But he did know that they could do it.  They had done it before.

O’Leary did not know that they could win a Grand National.  Nobody knows that they can win a Grand National.  The Grand National is this mystical conjuror of stories, a playing-pitch-leveller: four and a quarter miles and 30 fences, most of them named, all of them unique, and 40 horses, each one carrying a weight that is commensurate with his or her ability, the theory being that each one has an equal chance of victory, that all 40 horses will pass the winning post in a line.

It is not easy to buy a Grand National winner.  Not easy to define an embryo Grand National horse.

Also, the market made Rule The World a 33/1 shot.  There is a level of expectation that goes with a 33/1 shot all right: low.

Gigginstown’s relationship with the Grand National has not always been a harmonious one.  It was in 2009 that they had their first runner in the race, Hear The Echo, hero of the 2008 Irish Grand National.  But the British handicapper made Hear The Echo’s task more difficult than it might have been, giving him 8lb more to carry than his Irish handicap rating dictated.

The O’Learys voiced their disapproval but, after much deliberation, decided to allow Hear The Echo take his chance in the race.  The horse jumped around all right, he jumped all 30 fences, then collapsed on the run-in before he got to the winning line, and died.

Never again, said Michael O’Leary at the time, would he allow a horse of his take his chance in the Grand National if he thought that he had been lumbered with an unfair burden.

It wasn’t until three years later that Gigginstown had their next National runner, Tharawaat, who finished eighth.  Quito De La Roque was pulled up in 2014 and First Lieutenant finished 16th last year.  They had just four runners in total in the Grand National before yesterday.  Yesterday, they ran three, First Lieutenant (again) and Sir Des Champs, who both fell, and Rule The World.

“This is the cream on top,” said O’Leary.  “I feel numb.  I thought we had no chance.  I wanted to win a Gold Cup, but to win a Grand National is beyond dreams.  And I’m delighted for Mouse.  He has done a fantastic job with this horse.”

The Mouse Morris/Gigginstown House story goes way back to War Of Attrition.  And when War Of Attrition won the Gold Cup 10 years ago, O’Leary said that he should stop now, that it could not get any better for him as a racehorse owner.  He repeated that mantra yesterday.  Thankfully he did not stop 10 years ago, and it is unlikely that he will stop now.  Hopefully he won’t.

It is difficult to over-estimate the contribution that Gigginstown House Stud makes to Irish National Hunt racing.  And make no mistake, with all of their horses in training in Ireland, they are a significant net contributor.  Total prize money earned can only ever serve to reduce total net costs, not cover them.

It is not a philanthropic contribution, you can see how much these big-race winners mean to O’Leary.  He says that he is in a good position, that he has the money to waste on racing and that, in his brother Eddie, he has a man who has an eye for a horse and who has a fair idea who the bullshitters are and who the straight-talkers are.  You do it sensibly, he says.  Or as sensibly as you can.  As sensibly as you can stand there and tear up €50 notes.

This story started with Tuco, the first horse that Michael O’Leary owned.  Trained by David Wachman, Tuco won the Land Rover Bumper at Fairyhouse in May 2001 on his racecourse debut.

Tuco beat 2005 Grand National winner Hedgehunter to win his maiden hurdle at Thurles the following February, and followed up by landing a Grade 3 contest at Naas 10 days later.  Then he ran in the Grade 2 novices’ hurdle at the 2002 Fairyhouse Easter Festival, fell at the third last flight, and was killed.

That could have been the end of the story right there, Michael O’Leary could have been turned off by Tuco’s unfortunate demise, sickened by the experience.  On the contrary, however, it stiffened his resolve and he set out to get more deeply involved.  War Of Attrition made his debut under Rules for Gigginstown House Stud at Naas in November 2003.  That was the start of it.

Yesterday was not the end of the story, it was just the latest incredible chapter.  Please God there are many more chapters to write.

© The Sunday Times, 10th April 2016