Donn's Articles » The Irish in Britain

The Irish in Britain

Next Saturday, on Bet365 Gold Cup day at Sandown, the curtain will come down on the 2015/16 British National Hunt season, and so will end the most successful National Hunt season ever for Irish-trained horses on the far side of the Irish Sea.

Willie Mullins has been the main headline-maker, and that is as it should be.  He is the dominant force.  When Mullins had eight winners at the 2015 Cheltenham Festival, he set the bar ridiculously high for himself, but he almost reached that height again at this year’s Festival with seven.

So there have been 55 races run at the Cheltenham Festival in the last two years, and Willie Mullins has been responsible for 15 of the winners.  That’s over 27% of the winners at the World Cup of National Hunt racing, and that is just an extraordinary share.

You can name this year’s equine heroes and heroines: Annie Power in the Champion Hurdle, Vautour in the Ryanair Chase, Douvan in the Arkle, Yorkhill in the Neptune Hurdle, Limini in the mares’ novices’ hurdle.  The fact that Mullins achieved what he achieved at Cheltenham without the force of Faugheen and without other key players Arctic Fire and Killultagh Vic is barely mentioned.

It didn’t matter anyway.  Mullins re-shuffled his pack and got on with it.  Annie Power won the Champion Hurdle for which Faugheen would have been favourite, Vroum Vroum Mag won the Mares’ Hurdle for which Annie Power would have been favourite, Black Hercules won the JLT Chase for which Killultagh Vic would have been favourite.

For the first time ever, Mullins re-assembled his troops after Cheltenham and attacked again at Aintree.  Annie Power won again, Douvan won again, Yorkhill won again.   Apple’s Jade won the Anniversary Hurdle, Bacardys won the bumper, Ivan Grozny won the conditional riders’ handicap hurdle, the last race on the last day.  The net result is that, as things stand and with just one week to go, even after the Paul Nicholls-trained Vicente won the Scottish Grand National at Ayr yesterday, Mullins is just £33,487 behind the reigning champion in the British National Hunt trainers’ championship, and he is 5/6 to win it.

It will be an extraordinary achievement if he does.  It is a generation since an Irish-based trainer won the British National Hunt trainers’ championship.  When the legendary Vincent O’Brien won the title in 1953-54, he had won the Grand National, the most valuable jumps race in the world, that year with Royal Tan.  So the fact that Mullins is in the position in which he is without having had the Grand National winner is quite remarkable.

It hasn’t all been about Willie Mullins though.  Gordon Elliott has been prolific in Britain since the day that he took out his trainer’s licence.  He had winners in Britain before he had winners in Ireland.  Indeed, when Elliott won the Aintree Grand National with Silver Birch in 2007, he still hadn’t had a winner under Rules in Ireland.  He corrected that situation quite quickly, and quite emphatically.

This year, Elliott cut loose in Britain.  He had his usual winners at Perth and Cartmel and Musselburgh and Ayr, but he also had three winners at the Cheltenham Festival: Cause Of Causes in the Kim Muir, Diamond King in the Coral Cup and, famously, Don Cossack in the Gold Cup.

Elliott had never really tried to hide the magnitude of the regard in which he held Don Cossack.  From early in the Sholokov gelding’s career, his trainer had been telling us about him, telling us how special a horse he could be.  Defeat for Don Cossack always seemed to upset Elliott more than defeat for any of his other horses.  So you had everything rolled up in his Gold Cup victory: elation, relief, vindication.

The fact that the Gigginstown House horse led home an Irish-trained 1-2-3-4 in jump racing’s blue riband event was just a bonus.

There have been many others this season.  Ivanovich Gorbatov put up a scintillating performance to win the Triumph Hurdle, thereby providing rookie trainer Joseph O’Brien with his first Cheltenham Festival winner, even if the record book says that it was Aidan’s first since Istabraq.  The Pat Kelly-trained Mall Dini won the Pertemps Final, Empire Of Dirt won the Cheltenham Plate for Colm Murphy, Henry de Bromhead won the Fighting Fifth Hurdle with Identity Thief.

Enda Bolger prepared On The Fringe to once again win the Foxhunters’ Chase at Cheltenham and at Aintree, just as he had done last year, and Paddy and James Griffin sprang a 50/1 shock with Maggio in the big three-mile handicap chase at Aintree, the race before the Grand National.  And then there was the Grand National, and then there was Mouse Morris.

Before Rule The World’s victory last Saturday, it had been nine years since an Irish-trained horse had won the Grand National, which was a bit of a lull, considering that six of the previous nine had gone back across the Irish Sea.  On Saturday, Irish horses filled five of the first six places.

And before this year, just two Irish-based trainers – Vincent O’Brien and Dan Moore – had won both the Aintree Grand National and the Cheltenham Gold Cup.  Now add two more: Gordon Elliott and Mouse Morris.

You couldn’t have written the Rule The World Aintree Grand National story and, if you had, your editor would have given it back to you and told you that it was too far-fetched.  Twelve days after Rogue Angel’s Irish National, 10 months after Mouse had tragically lost his son Christopher to carbon monoxide poisoning.  “Tiffer is working overtime for us,” Mouse said.

© The Sunday Times, 17th April 2016