For much of its 130-year history, the record of British-trained horses in the Irish Grand National has been as miserable as the weather on the average Easter Bank Holiday Monday, or the traffic on the Dartford Crossing the previous Thursday as everyone heads for the Continent. Though the situation has picked up a little in recent years, with three British winners in the 1990s, including Desert Orchid 10 years ago, this is still a race which the Irish defend with particular zeal.
And rightly so, since it remains the most valuable chase in the country's calendar, and one with some of the greatest names in Irish racing, including Arkle, Flyingbolt and the three-time winner Brown Lad on its roll of honour. And if Brown Lad was the Irish National's equivalent of Red Rum, then Alike, who won in 1929, was probably its Foinavon. Alike's jockey, Frank Wise, stood five feet four inches in his riding boots, had three missing fingers and rode with a wooden leg.
But while this has always been a difficult race for the visitors to win, rarely can British yards have sent as talented a team of challengers to Fairyhouse as the eight-strong contingent which will make up almost a third of today's 27-runner field. Edmond, the Welsh National winner, and Red Marauder, who came to grief at Becher's first time around in the Grand National 16 days ago, are the most familiar to punters on this side of the water, but with horses like Lancastrian Jet and Golden Drum also on hand, this is a raiding party with strength in depth.
The most notable name ranged against them, meanwhile, is Bobbyjo, the 1999 Grand National winner and going for his second win in this race in three years. He was still going very well at Liverpool this time around when a falling horse almost knocked him over at Becher's on the second circuit, and Paul Carberry, his jockey, was merely a spectator from that point, but since Bobbyjo had been prepared solely with the Grand National in mind, he should still be a fresh horse today. He will need to be in peak form, however, to carry top weight to victory on today's easy ground.
The family trainer-and-jockey combination which won the National with Papillon, Ted and Ruby Walsh, will attempt to complete a rare double with Commanche Court, who won the Triumph Hurdle in 1997. He is still in his novice season, however, and while he developed into a stayer over hurdles, his latest outing was in the two-mile Arkle Trophy at the Festival. Papillon, of course, ran in a hurdle race before winning at Aintree, but it is hard to believe Walsh can pull off two big-race wins after unorthodox preparations in less than three weeks.
With the remainder of the Irish challenge looking fairly exposed, the feeling remains that this could be a year for the visitors, but perhaps not the ones that many expect. Red Marauder and Edmond might both like the ground even softer to show their best, and LANCASTRIAN JET (nap 3.50), a stablemate of Edmond, could go close despite a quote of 22-1 in some lists this morning.
Though he ran poorly last time out, that was at left-handed Chepstow, and his trainer feels a right-handed track suits Lancastrian Jet better. His form in winning the Mildmay-Cazalet at Sandown in January gives him a solid chance, and while Golden Drum also appeals at 16-1, the price against Lancastrian Jet is too big to miss.
The domestic feature is the Rosebery Handicap at Kempton, in which Crystal Creek (next best 3.40) could run well at decent odds. He won a maiden on his seasonal debut over today's course and distance last year, and Amanda Perrett, his trainer, is in fine form. Zaajer (3.05), another who went well fresh last season, could be the answer to the Magnolia Stakes. In the sprint handicap, Speed On (2.35), who won first time out last season, is the choice, while Day Journey (4.10), should also go well.
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