James Lawton: Mouse roars following knock-out punch from true warrior
Saturday 18 March 2006
When Ireland named their latest equine hero - they come in batches now - and sent him off from his stable in the vale of Tipperary to win the greatest prize in National Hunt racing it was nomenclature of genius, as apt as a girl named Virginia arriving at the convent doors.
You couldn't call any old horse War Of Attrition. It had to have heart and guts, as much to ward off ridicule as inspire the brilliant victory that came yesterday in the Gold Cup.
War Of Attrition, beautifully piloted by the veteran star Conor O'Dwyer on behalf of the Ryanair chief executive, Michael O'Leary, and his chain-smoking trainer Mouse Morris, wore down the field with a superb meticulousness - it was a classic, sustained knock-out punch over the 22 testing fences, and more than anything it was reward for the kind of nerve and ambition which has coursed through Irish racing over the past few years.
The Irish have been the Kings of Cheltenham when it has mattered most these last few days and when O'Dwyer led in another 1-2-3 - a repeat of their domination in the Champion Hurdle on Tuesday - we had another example of a trainer daring enough to go for the chance of greatness rather than the near certainty of more modest prize.
Morris and his pugnacious airline owner patron O'Leary had the more comfortable option of going for their "house" race - the Ryanair Chase. But Morris, the son of former Olympic chief, the late Lord Killganin, concluded that in War Of Attrition they might have the means to a stunning success.
Said the trainer: "I thought about last year and the way everyone was talking about the difficulty Kicking King would have going up the hill, and the horse came home brilliantly, and I thought, if he could do it, why not War Of Attrition. So in December we talked about it and said, 'Yes, we'll go for gold'. We'll work the horse at home, we'll set our sights on the big target."
A short cut to glory was thoroughly approved of by O'Leary, the man who has played such a vital role in the revolution of cheap travel. When Dublin instituted lanes exclusively for buses and taxis, O'Leary promptly applied for and was granted a licence. He sped into the centre of Dublin from his home in the country proofed against delay - and prosecution.
It was pretty much the same for War Of Attrition as he became the centre point of Ireland's annexation of this west country spa town. Short of transplanting the Rock of Cashel, the Irish could not have put more of stamp on the affairs of St Patrick's Day, from the wee small hours of it until the climax yesterday. Morris had his worries, though, confessing to one visitor to his stables, which are just over the hill from the mighty Coolmore Stud, "I'm living on Sweet Afton [an Irish cigarette brand] and Rennies. When you make a decision like this, you have a need to be right. But I've always believed in this horse since he went so close with Brave Inca in the Supreme Novices two years ago. That form couldn't have been better."
Yesterday Morris was able to relax for the first time in months as O'Dwyer, showing the touch and the experience you might expect from a man who already had one Gold Cup and two Champion Hurdles on his gunbelt, steered the seven-year-old into a perfect run. O'Dwyer picked out the driest, best terrain and when he began to turn the screw on the Grand National winner Hedgehunter and the Festival's top jockey, Ruby Walsh, victory became another Irish formality.
Morris said: "I won't be making a statement about where he goes next. I can't think about any of that when all this is going on. Let's just enjoy the moment." He was talking to the captive Irish crowd who had turned, with immense good nature, into the conquering army.
The process was almost seamless as the invaders reached their record mark of 10 Festival wins, a journey which produced some extraordinary examples of the strength of the Irish racing industry - one doubtless helped by the injection of €500 million (£347m) by the government.
One of the most dramatic came in the Jewson Novices' Handicap Chase, the first English training triumph of Wednesday. The first 10 jockeys were all Irish. Tony McCoy was followed home by Mick Fitzgerald, Barry Geraghty, Paul Carberry, Tony Dobbin, Paddy Brennan, Ruby Walsh, Graham Lee, Tom Doyle and Rodi Greene.
The 11th-placed rider spoke with a perfect English accent. But his name was Alan O'Keefe.
Yesterday in the shadow of the brilliant Gold Cup coup, Cheltenham based Jonjo O'Neill rallied from his sickbed to see Tony McCoy deliver a shattering victory on his Black Jack Ketchum in the Novice Hurdle.
The final count was Britain 14, Ireland 10 - but that was just a thumbnail scrape across the surface of of Ireland's massive statement about its proprietorial status over a few English days on the turn into spring.
They are, of course, the most charming of conquerors and the spirit of their attack was captured after still another of their triumphs on the second day with a horse named Hairy Molly. The owning syndicate are listed as FTB. The letters stand for Feck the Begrudgers? It's a statement of rejection of the Irish version of the tall poppy syndrome.
Begrudgers spoil the party and the joy of victory. They do not stayed up until four in the morning proving that apart from being the boldest of betters they are also lords of the dance. They do not send great tides of acclaim rolling across the valley. They are a mean, dispiriting breed. However, when War Of Attrition made his final strides along the rising ground there was not one of them to be seen. They had simply been run out of town, and at the most breathtaking clip.
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