Things We Learned » Irish National drama

Irish National drama

For drama, you couldn’t have topped the BoyleSports Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse on Easter Monday.  There was more drama in those nine minutes than there is in a whole series of Homeland. 

While the race provided lots of answers, also left us with lots of imponderables.  We don’t know, for example, how Pairofbrowneyes would have fared had he not come down at the fifth fence, and we don’t know how Oscar Knight would have done had he not been brought down by him, just when he had been travelling and jumping well.  Nor do we know how Fine Theatre or Squouateur would have fared had they not suffered a similar fate.

The same is true of the other fallers, Kilcarry Bridge and Kemboy, who went at the first, Thunder And Roses and The Paparrazi Kid, who went later.  And we definitely don’t know what the finishing order would have been if Bellshill had jumped the final fence straight and true instead of markedly to his left.

You can watch the replay as many times as you like, but it is still impossible to determine for certain how it would have played out.  Call It Magic probably would have finished seventh, as he did, Ross O’Sullivan’s horse running his heart out and travelling like a potential winner to the top of the home straight.  After that though, you can put forward any permutation of the first six home that you choose – there are 720 of them by the way – and you can argue a legitimate case.

Bellshill could have gone on and won.  Willie Mullins’ horse appeared to be the most likely winner on the run to the last, he traded at 1.33 in-running, before he meandered.  His stable companion Isleofhopendreams could have won it.

Arkwrisht could have won it.  He was Bellshill’s main challenger at the last.  Remarkably, Joseph O’Brien’s horse was beaten a total of 12 lengths in the end.  Folsom Blue could have won it, Forever Gold could have won it.  They were both impeded by the knock-on effect.  Or it may be that General Principle would have stayed on as strongly as he did for JJ Slevin and got up and won anyway.

What we do know is that the race was won by General Principle, a horse who, had the ball hopped a little differently, might not have even run in the race.  You don’t see the Gigginstown cap colours going down to Red very often.  Even Gordon Elliott and Eddie O’Leary appeared to be fairly surprised afterwards.   

It was a fourth Irish Grand National for Gigginstown House and a third in four years.  It was a first for JJ Slevin, just two months after he rode his first Grade 1 winner, and a first for Gordon Elliott.  You could see how much it meant to all.  It wasn’t just the money either, significant though €270,000 is.  It was the prestige of it too.  It may not be just about the only gig in town, which it probably was a generation ago, but the Irish Grand National is still massive.  It is still one of the highlights on the Irish National Hunt scene.

Bellshill demoted 

The stewards made the decision to demote Bellshill from fourth place to fifth, promoting Folsom Blue from fifth to fourth in his stead.  In one sense, it was harsh.  There wasn’t a lot that David Mullins could do about Bellshill’s left-leaning tendencies at the final fence, and there was a sense of kicking a man when he is down.  If he had jumped the final fence as well as he had jumped the first 23, there is a great chance that he would have won.

In another sense though, Folsom Blue was definitely impeded by the knock-on effect, and it is good that the stewards had a look and made a decision.  It would have been easy just to allow the result to stand as it was, leave well enough alone, and you could argue that Bellshill might have been placed sixth behind sixth-placed Arkwrisht, who was, after all, the main direct sufferer, despite the fact that he finished 10 lengths behind him.

At least most bookmakers were betting each-way to five places.

Landmark day for Elliott

It was a landmark day for Gordon Elliott.  Of course, the Irish National was the headline-generator, his first Irish National after going so close in the past, like with Bless The Wings in 2017 and, more agonisingly, with Bless The Wings in 2016.

He ran 13 horses in the Irish National, which is, according to the Racing Post’s John Randall, more runners than any trainer has ever had in any race run anywhere in the world, beating by one the 12 that Dandy Nicholls ran in the Stewards’ Sprint Handicap at Goodwood in 2003.

And less than an hour after the Irish National, Elliott broke through another barrier when, down in Cork, Portnablagh rallied under Declan Lavery to get up and win the mares’ bumper, thereby bringing up the trainer’s 200th win of the season. 

Twenty minutes later Elliott notched up 201 when Getaway John won the bumper at Fairyhouse.  And it goes on.

Trainers’ championship

Of course, the Irish National was a hugely significant landmark on the road that leads to the Irish National Hunt trainers’ title.

The €270,000 that Gordon Elliott bagged for winning the race – added to the victories of Pallasator and others, reduced by the victories of Laurina and Al Boum Photo and Coquin Mans and Un De Sceaux and Getabird and others – saw Elliott end the Fairyhouse Easter meeting with a lead of just over €550,000 over Willie Mullins in the trainers’ championship.

It is a significant lead, but it is not insurmountable.  Remember that, going into the Punchestown Festival last year, Elliott had a lead of around €400,000, and Mullins ended up winning the title with almost €200,000 in hand.

These things can turn on sixpences.  If the head by which General Principle beat Isleofhopendreams in the Irish National had gone the other way, Elliott’s lead would be €350,000 less than it is.  Then again, if Doctor Phoenix had not fallen at the second last fence when upsides Un De Sceaux in the Devenish Chase and had gone on to beat him, it would be €75,000 more than it is.  And, as sure as eggs is eggs, there will be more twists and turns in this story before we get to the final pages.

O’Connell announces retirement 

Brian O’Connell succumbed to the inevitable during the week.  In a game in which two ambulances follow you as you work, when the medics tell you that it is time to draw stumps, your only option is to draw stumps.  The advice was that, despite several operations on his shoulder, it would just be too much of a risk to continue race riding.

O’Connell will always be associated with Dunguib, the horse he rode in all of his 16 races and whom he rode to victory nine times, including in the Champion Bumper, the Royal Bond Hurdle and the Deloitte Hurdle. 

It was Dunguib who carried the rider from the amateur ranks into the professional ranks, and O’Connell was a top professional.  He rode Last Instalment six times, and he won on him four times, including in the Grade 1 Fort Leney Chase and in the Irish Gold Cup.  And he won the John Durkan Chase on Don Cossack on the only occasion on which he rode Gordon Elliott’s horse in a race.

The good news is that O’Connell is fit and well and looking forward to the next chapter of his career, which will inevitably be within racing.

© The Irish Field, 7th April 2018