Grand National: Lucky Number comes up in the Irish sweep

The green party begins on debutants' day as Co Clare trainer brings Numbersixvalverde out in style to leave the hot favourites breathless
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Experience counted here yesterday, but not quite enough. Hedgehunter and Clan Royal, the 5-1 Grand National joint-favourites, a pair with records and tales to tell over this unique course that would fill a form-book or two, had to give best yesterday to a crowd of Liverpool virgins. The 11-1 winner, Numbersixvalverde, was having his first try over the challenging fences and neither jockey Niall Madden, nor trainer Martin Brassil, nor indeed owner Bernard Carroll had any previous experience of the Aintree showpiece.

And as he returned on the near-black 10-year-old, who had finished six lengths clear of the so-gallant Hedgehunter, 20-year-old Madden - known as Slippers because his father was Boots - had no doubts about his initiation. "Magic," he gasped. "Magic, magic, magic."

Indeed, Madden and Numbersixvalverde had a charmed run all the way round. Unperturbed by a false start, the partnership settled sweetly in the pack, hunting round like old hands as Ballycassidy, accompanied early doors by Shotgun Willy and Lord Of Illusion and then by Puntal, blazed the trail.

Numbersixvalverde was one of a group of six who drew clear after Ballycassidy crashed, while still clear, six from home. No horse had jumped the spruce more economically and surefootedly and he was moving fluidly as he shadowed Hedgehunter, with Ruby Walsh in the saddle, and Clan Royal, aided by Tony McCoy, as the two market leaders and old rivals diced in the lead.

Going to the last of the 30 obstacles Hedgehunter had won their particular duel, and for a flicker the immortality of becoming the first back-to-back victor since Red Rum in 1974 beckoned. But only for a flicker, for, as he took, off Numbersixvalverde loomed upsides, jumped past him in the air, and was away.

And as a National winner himself - last year's Irish version when, ironically, he was ridden by Walsh - stamina was never going to be in doubt and, carrying 18lb less than his rival, his margin of daylight grew wider. Hedgehunter was a length and a quarter in front of Clan Royal, who had dropped back but came again to pip the 33-1 chance Nil Desperandum.

Madden, one of the youngest-ever riders to win jump racing's most valuable prize, had taken advice from his father, a veteran of the contest, beforehand. "He told me not to be in a rush," he said.

"I thought I was in a better position when we set off the first time than when we had another go, but the race just went so well. He's an oh-so-clever jumper, so tough, and he's given me a dream ride all the way."

Numbersixvalverde - named for his owner's villa in Portugal - was the fifth Irish-trained National winner in eight years, and continued the raiders' dominance of this season's major races.

Brassil, though, is one of the lesser lights of the Irish scene, with just 25 horses at his yard at Dunmurray in Co Kildare. "I've tried to imagine winning this race since I was a boy," he said, "and couldn't. My hands were shaking so much holding my binoculars that I missed most of the first circuit.

"But after last night's rain I knew the ground would be on the dead side and if he didn't fall he'd have a chance, as four and a half miles on that sort of ground was made for him. Niall gave him a great ride, he has such a good relationship with the horse and just kept a good position and popped away, not doing anything silly or extravagant."

Brassil, 49, then picked up on his jockey's theme. "It was like watching a movie out there," he said. "It was magic, just magic." The quiet man's first winner came in 1995, in the colours of Carroll, a Co Clare property developer. And, true to the strands that weave though and bind this sport, another of his early successes came with the mare Aberedw, later the dam of Hedgehunter.

Willie Mullins, trainer of the runner-up, could only be heartened by his charge's sterling effort under his huge burden. "Giving that weight to a good horse like the winner on that ground was just too much," he said. "I didn't think we were beaten until the Elbow; I thought Ruby might have saved a bit and hoped the other horse might have gone too soon. But all being equal, we'll be back next year. He loves this place, it brings him alive."

The race was run in blustery conditions and as the field passed the stands after a circuit, 27 of the 40 starters remained on their feet, but thereafter Ballycassidy led a diminishing field and only nine finished.

A long way behind the first four, Risk Accessor took fifth, in front of Puntal, Joes Edge, Inca Trail and the Nina Carberry-ridden Forest Gunner, the last on the roll of honour. Of the other fancied contenders, Innox and Royal Auclair, last year's runner-up, got no further than the first; Ross Comm came down at the fourth; and Jack High, the gambled-on third favourite, unseated at the Chair. There was one fatality; Tyneandthyneagain, who fell at the first, was later discovered to have sustained a back injury and was put down.

The false start was caused by Ross Comm charging the tape and breaking it, but the field was quickly and efficiently halted by flagmen. There was a five-minute delay while the field regrouped and the tape was repaired and Native Upmanship was badly left at the second attempt. Thankfully, there was no repeat of the 1993 farce.

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