Papillon, a big, moody bay gelding, for once floated like a benign butterfly to win the 153rd Grand National. And in the process he stung the bookmakers like a bee. The nine-year-old, trained in Ireland by Ted Walsh, was backed from 33-1 yesterday morning to 10-1 second favourite just before the off and took an estimated £10 million out of the satchels in a wholesale, snowballing gamble on and off the course.
It was a second successive success for Ireland - Bobbyjo ended a 24-year-drought for the raiders last year - and, against considerable odds, a second successive victory for a father-and-son team, with Walsh and his 20-year-old son Ruby filling the roles of Tommy and Paul Carberry - but less extravagantly. Where young Carberry swung from the rafters 12 months ago, Walsh jnr, his country's champion jockey last season, dismounted in conventional fashion.
The drying ground at Aintree was one key to Papillon. The other was whether the horse, an individual of moods, would decide that the unique course was to his liking. It was soon clear that the big spruce had been given the thumbs-up. With his jockey a willing partner in his first National, giving him a proper young man's ride close to the pace down the inside the whole way, Papillon gave an exhilarating display.
Carrying the green colours of his American owner, Betty Moran, he was never worse than sixth as Star Traveller and Esprit De Cotte cut out the pace during the phoney war of the first circuit. The bay head with the casually flicking ears showed in front for the first time at the Canal Turn second time round and though he was headed first by his compatriot Lucky Town and later by the eventual runner-up, Mely Moss, he showed considerable determination under pressure to win pretty cosily.
On the run from the last fence he repelled Mely Moss's persistent presence to take the £290,000 prize by a length and a quarter. Niki Dee stayed on late to take third spot, 12 lengths behind, with the Aintree veteran Brave Highlander a most honourable fourth in front of Addington Boy, Call It A Day and The Last Fling. Bobbyjo, who made a horrendous mistake at the smallest fence, came in 11th of the 17 finishers.
"Papillon jumped absolutely super," said Walsh in the time-honoured, but absolutely sincere, tribute to his partner. "He was maybe a bit low over the first two, but he's some jumper. He was a bit keen,but I didn't fight him, and he settled into a rhythm.
"At the second last, Norman [Williamson, on Mely Moss] went past me. I gave mine a slap and away he went again. I couldn't believe it after four miles. The other horse stuck to him, though, I thought for a moment I wouldn't shake him off. He was a thorn in my side but my fellow kept going well."
The Grand National, oddly, does not always go to the courageous; Rag Trade, who beat Red Rum, was a big soft coward of a horse, and Last Suspect was distinctly windy. Perhaps it is not fair to class Papillon among the faint-hearted, but even his trainer admits that he has shown character defects. "He's a bit of an old monkey," said the Kildare-based handler. "He was either going to run a blinder or a stinker."
Blinder it was, but it was surely Walsh's tact and finesse in the saddle that made it so. Papillon was allowed to do his own thing, enjoyed himself and did not think of downing tools. "I can't say with complete honesty that I always thought I was going to win," said Walsh, "because I thought that half-way up the run-in in the Irish National two years ago, and got beaten."
That nearly moment for Papillon proved an Aintree pointer, for the horse who collared him in the last strides was Bobbyjo. Afterwards Papillon, regarded as an ideal Aintree type then, lost his way. His return to form was signalled by a stout performance in a hurdle race last month.
"Last year some of the jockeys thought I should put blinkers on him," said Walsh snr. "Big mistake; it made him even more leery. He was disappointing at the start of the season and in a cross-country race in which he had two stone in hand he looked a bigger mule than ever."
If the race was a rehabilitation for the horse, it was a lifesaver for his jockey. Having followed in the footsteps of his father, the 11-times Irish jumps amateur champion, last term while still studying for school exams, Walsh had had a nightmare this season. He broke a collar-bone early in the campaign, fractured a leg in a fall in the Velka Pardubicka in the Czech Republic in October and then aggravated the injury in a schooling accident.
Credit must go to the gallant runner-up, Mely Moss, a spare mount for Williamson after his intended partner, Betty's Boy, was killed last weekend. The nine-year-old, trained by Charlie Egerton, was having his first race for 346 days. Egerton, generously, did not claim that ring-rustiness had cost him victory. "The first thing I thought was bugger," he said, "but in retrospect I'm delighted. Even if he had not had an interrupted preparation I don't think he'd have finished closer."
Twenty-three of the 40 who set out failed to complete. The well-fancied Micko's Dream and the Norwegian challenger Trinitro were among the five who subsided at the first, and Dark Stranger, the 9-1 market leader, gave Tony McCoy a painful fall at the third. The first Becher's claimed Red Marauder and Young Kenny went at the 10th. Star Traveller, the ante-post favourite, led for a lap and a half until he was pulled up four out.
Happily, no horse appeared to suffer serious injury, though Micko's Dream, who fell when riderless at Becher's, was taken to a local veterinary hospital to examine pulled stomach muscles. Five equine deaths on the meeting's first two days focused renewed and unwanted attention on the National. But as Ted Walsh said: "People pick up on these things at a meeting like the National, because it's the only race they watch. But horses get killed on the Flat too. None of us like it but it is a fact of racing."Reuse content