It is not often we look to the Grand National for equine salvation. But, at the end of a week in which five horses died, four on the opening of the three-day Aintree meeting, the National was won by a self-confessed "Aintree-phobe". Mrs Betty Moran, the owner of Papillon, knew of the National and did not like what she saw. Last year, she refused to run Papillon because of Aintree's ferocious reputation.
"I came here when I was younger, but I didn't walk the course then," she said. "But I came racing yesterday, walked the course and realised what great ground it was and how much the fences had been modified."
The persuasive powers of Ted Walsh, the trainer, and the enthusiasm of Ruby Walsh, the other half of the Irish family connection, did the rest. Mrs Moran put her signature to the contract; only the bookmakers wished she had stayed back in Pennsylvania. The National is rarely the best race for a flutter, but yesterday the housewives' punt turned into a heavyweight gamble.
"It was a snowball effect," David Hood, of William Hill, said. "The biggest bet we took was £1,000, but the horse was heavily tipped in the morning papers and the gamble gathered pace. It wasn't just fivers, it was all those 50 pences from casual punters." £10m of 50 pence pieces were eked from the usually miserly satchels of the bookmakers and, by nightfall, the figures who traditionally weave their way from Aintree included several bookmakers with empty pockets and eyes full of tears.
Yet, in the morning, there had been no sign of the fall-out. Papillon had some smart support from the Irish, a few whispers had filtered across the Irish Sea and the form, if carefully selected, seemed worthy of a second glance. But if there was going to be another Irish father and son tale to tell, it was surely more likely to belong to the Carberrys, Tommy and Paul, who were bidding for a second successive National on Bobbyjo. Their party, it is said, only finished last week, now the Adelphi Hotel, the traditional haunt for the Irish in Liverpool, will have to refill the glasses, take down the chandeliers and reinforce the ceiling once more. In the end, no one cares which Irish horse is the subject of the celebration. Any excuse will do.
For Ruby Walsh, the Irish champion jockey, this was the sort of reward he would have rejected during the dark days when he was nursing a broken leg. Too improbable a tale, even for the shamrock. Six months Walsh languished in the hands of physios and doctors after a fall in the Pardubika, the Czech cross-country event which makes the National seem as dangerous as a donkey derby. He counted the days to his return, then broke a collar-bone and, riding out on his return to the saddle, fell off once more to reopen the fracture. "Me mudda said I was a greet patient," said Walsh, whose accent is only marginally more penetrable than Paul Carberry's. His mudda was probably lying. It was probably as long as Ruby has ever spent off a horse in his life, except perhaps those first six months.
Yet Walsh's ride on Papillon betrayed the confidence of a young man certain of his trade and with growing belief in the handsome weight of horseflesh beneath him. He would, Ted had said that morning outside the hearing of the owner, either run a "blinder or a stinker".
And a blinder it was. From a long way out, it became clear that Papillon, with those bright green colours, was the horse they all had to beat. Apart from being a "bit keen" over the first few fences, the only danger came from the erratic steering of Star Traveller, who had given Richard Johnson an armchair ride until the compass - and the legs - went awry just before the 27th. Wisely, Johnson pulled up the long-time pre-race favourite. But Papillon floated on. On his back, Walsh began to size up the opposition. He remembered the previous time Papillon seemed to have the measure of the rest and then stopped half-way up the run-in. When Mely Moss, under Norman Williamson, headed him at the second last, Walsh thought his confidence was misplaced.
"I did, I thought 'that's it'," said Walsh. "But then he pricked his ears again and I knew we were OK." It was still the longest run-in of his life as Mely Moss, driven forcefully to the line by Williamson, refused to give an inch, propelling the Irish into a frenzy for the second year and father Ted into loquacious overdrive. "You can't stop him talking at the best of times," said Ruby.
And this was as good an excuse as any. "It is doubly nervous when you have your son riding in the race and I was very worried before the race." Delirious when son and carriage returned safe and sound to the winners' enclosure and, curiously, a rousing chorus of "Ole, ole, ole, ole". Sung in an Irish accent, of course.
Ted, Ruby and Betty: it sounds like the latest blockbuster from Hollywood. Memories of Aintree will be all the sweeter in Pennsylvania now; whether Mrs Moran will return with Papillon for another sting next year is another matter. She does not look the frail type and perhaps she will reflect that her precious run of luck should not be pushed to another 12 months. "We'll see," she added. "As my ol' trainer Woody Stephens used to say, 'God willing, and if the creeks don't rise'."Reuse content