The Celtic tiger roars and Ireland win a Grand National. Twelve months ago at Aintree, Bobbyjo and Paul Carberry ended a 24-year losing run for the raiders from across the water. And it's a drought that may well become a flood.
Technically, most Grand National winners are from Ireland in that they are foaled there. But over the last decade or so the Irish economy has boomed and owners have been able to compete at the sales with the fat purses from Britain who descend on Fairyhouse and Kill to carry away the best of the young stock.
"People don't feel the imperative to sell out of the country," said Willie Mullins. "Developing jumpers is a long-term prospect, but the benefits of keeping home-grown talent at home are beginning to show." Mullins' stable star, Florida Pearl, is one who might have got away in another era. And in six days' time the Bagenalstown trainer might be very glad that Micko's Dream also remained in the land of his birth.
The chestnut eight-year-old will be Mullins' first Grand National runner as a trainer, though as a jockey he rode in the race twice, carted out by The Ladys Master in 1983 and a faller at the first Becher's on Hazy Dawn the following year.
The Grand National became a live target for Micko's Dream, a son of Buckskin from a largely Flat-bred family (he shares his great-grand-dam with the Irish 2000 Guineas and Derby winner Desert King), after he won the Thyestes Chase in January off joint top-weight.
A defeat followed by Amberleigh House, who had very nearly beaten Florida Pearl on his previous outing, in a Grade Two race at Thurles,then it was back to Gowran forthe Red Mills Trial Chase and a performance that stamped him without doubt as a leading Aintree candidate.
He beat a good yardstick in Bob Treacy by eight lengths, further than he had in the Thyestes and on worse terms, with Danoli back in third. "It was then we decided to skip Cheltenham, even though there was a £50,000 bonus on offer, and go for Aintree," said Mullins. "As it turned out he couldn't have run at Cheltenham because he pulled a muscle, but he's absolutely fine now."
Micko's Dream has improved hand over fist since he won a bumper on his debut, surprising even his trainer as he has progressed up the ranks. "To be honest I thought he was pretty ordinary as a bumper horse," said Mullins, "but he has improved something like 20lb each year, which is pleasing."
The gelding, a tall, rangy, white-faced chestnut, will be ridden by his regular pilot Jason Titley, who proved a rookie can win a National when he scored on his debut ride on Royal Athlete in 1995. Now based in his native Ireland, Titley said: "He would give you some ride round Aintree. He's got gears and he will be able to lie up with the pace. He's also a great jumper, can go in long or put a short one in when he has to."
Micko's Dream, who has never fallen and may still be a step ahead of the handicapper, has done his winning on soft, but Mullins is not fazed by the prospect of good ground or better. "The National track has a spongy quality that keeps it from being hard, even though it may be fast," he said.
The horse, owned by a syndicate of prison officers headed by Jim Balfry, will make the journey from Co Carlow to Liverpool in midweek; his small army of supporters will follow on. They can be rewarded by the first back-to-back Irish win since Vincent O'Brien's great hat-trick in 1953-55 with Early Mist, Royal Tan and Quare Times.
The strongest Irish challenge for some years is backed up by Bobbyjo, whose year has been geared towards Saturday and who, despite his rise through the weights, is still reasonably treated; Merry People, going strongly when he fell two out last time; and dour stayers like Hollybank Buck, Papillon and Lucky Town.
But the greatest threat to Micko's Dream should come from the home side. Star Traveller is a perfectly worthy favourite for a race in which market leaders have a good record; two have won in the past four runnings. The nine-year-old former point-to-pointer has done little wrong throughout his career and ran a first-class trial at Cheltenham when third to the very smart Marlborough in the National Hunt Chase.
He, too, is a first National runner for his trainer, Henry Daly, but hails from a background steeped in Aintree tradition. Daly's former guv'nor and mentor, the late Tim Forster, prepared three National winners, Well To Do, Ben Nevis and Last Suspect. The Gold Cup hero Richard Johnston will be aboard Star Traveller; the last rider to complete the Gold Cup-Grand National double was John Burke on Royal Frolic and Rag Trade in 1976.
What this year's race lacks in terms of class it should recoup as a spectacle. Tomorrow's five-day- declaration stage will further define the field but of the remaining 63 entries 41 are set to run off their proper handicap mark, promising an open, competitive, contest, with a number of close-to-the-pace types among the fancied horses.
The ground, though, unknown at this stage, remains a key part of the equation. If it comes up soft then The Last Fling, who loves a flat, left-handed track, would enter calculations.
1 Micko's Dream 2 Star Traveller 3 Addington Boy 4 Red Marauder
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