Donn's Articles » Gavin Cromwell

Gavin Cromwell

When Raz De Maree finished second in the Welsh Grand National in December 2016, his trainer Gavin Cromwell was elated.  Elated but gutted.  Elated that his horse had run such a big race, gutted that he had gone so close to winning, beaten less than two lengths by Native River, a Gold Cup horse.  So the trainer resolved that he would go back the following year and give it another go. 

Last Saturday’s win was a year in the making, 12 months in the plotting, except that there was no real plot, no clandestine manoeuvrings.  The plan was laid bare: go back and win the Welsh Grand National. 

It was a big ask.  Raz De Maree turned 13 on 1st January this year and the Welsh Grand National is a young horse’s race.  When Jimmy Swan’s horse finished second in the race last season as an 11-near-12-year-old, he was the only horse aged in double figures who finished in the first 10.  Before last Saturday, only one horse aged 10 or older had won the race in over 20 years, and no 12-year-old had won it since 1950. 

Age is just a number, Cromwell said.

“I knew that the horse was very well,” says the trainer.  “I knew that I had him at least as well as I had him last year, maybe even better.”

The Welsh Grand National is run every year, weather permitting, on 27th December.  The problem this year was that the weather did not permit.  Raz De Maree set off with Jenny Murphy on Christmas Eve, Dublin to Holyhead, five hours on the road and Christmas Day in a hotel in Chepstow, but all for nothing.

“I didn’t mind heading off,” recalls Jenny.  “He’s a great traveller and they look after us very well over there.  I did it last year, and I was delighted to do it again this year.”

It was frustrating, though, when the meeting was called off.

“I knew that it didn’t look good on St Stephen’s Day,” says Jenny.  “The ground was very soft and the rain was lashing down.  The clerk of the course Keith Ottesen told me that he would be out on the track at 6.00am on the morning of the race, that I should call him then, so I did, and he said no chance, that it wasn’t raceable.  It was disappointing, but at least we knew early, so we were able to get the lunchtime ferry home.”

The Welsh National was re-scheduled for two weeks later, 6th January, but Jenny wasn’t hopeful.  The ground was so soft, she tells you, you could have swum around the bottom bend, and there was so much rain.  Even so, they planned for two weeks thence. 

“I was very happy with him before he went over the first time,” says Cromwell, “but I was even happier the second time.  I don’t know what it was, he was just really bouncing, he just seemed to be on very good terms with himself.”

The weather almost intervened again.  Storm Eleanor meant that the ferry was cancelled on the Wednesday.  Nothing sailed.  They were all set to go on Thursday morning, but that ferry got cancelled too.  Thursday evening was later than ideal, but thankfully the winds abated and the ferry sailed.  Raz De Maree and Jenny Murphy arrived at Chepstow at five o’clock on Friday morning, just 33 hours before Gavin Cromwell legged James Bowen up on the horse in the parade ring before the start of the Welsh National.

“I was delighted that we got James Bowen to ride him,” says the trainer.  “Donie McInerney rode him at Cork and at Southwell, but he couldn’t commit to the ride on the original date, so we had booked James for that, and I decided to leave him on him.  He is a very good claiming rider, and we wanted a claiming rider.  Raz De Maree is a small horse, he just can’t operate under big weights, so James’ 5lb claim was very important.”

Cromwell watched the race on the big screen in the parade ring, just as he did last year, and he was happy with his horse at just about every stage of the race.  His rider had to niggle the horse along a little in the back straight, but that’s Raz De Maree for you.  His trainer knew that he would find plenty, that he would give his all.

“James said afterwards that he thought he was struggling a bit down the back straight, but he was never really struggling.  He was 10 lengths closer to the leaders than he was at the same point in last year’s race.  He got caught in a bit of a pocket going around the bottom bend, but once they turned into the home straight and he started to pass horses, I knew that he was going to go very close.  If anything, he hit the front too early.”

Raz De Maree jumped to the front over the second last fence, and it never looked likely that he would relinquish his lead.  He got in tight to the final fence, but he stayed on gamely up the run-in to put six lengths between himself and Alfie Spinner, his nearest pursuer, a fellow 13-year-old.  Jenny Murphy didn’t know that she had been screaming him home but, when she got to the vet’s box, she was hoarse.

Gavin Cromwell has had big winners before, he won two Grade 1 races with Jer’s Girl in the spring of 2016, and he won the Grade 3 Juvenile Hurdle at Fairyhouse last December with Espoir D’Allen, who is now second favourite for the Triumph Hurdle.  They were brilliant wins, significant wins.  Jer’s Girl is the first horse that owner JP McManus has had with him.  But last Saturday was different.  Not necessarily better, just different.  A 13-year-old, against all the stats, against all the odds.

Gavin Cromwell was elated this year.  Just elated.

© The Sunday Times, 7th January 2018