The melancholy plain of the Curragh stretched out beneath a grimy canopy of cloud yesterday morning, an anomalous setting for two of the most cheering talents in Ireland. Their silhouette silently skimmed the horizon, the first stage of a five-month journey back to the anarchy and rhapsody of the most famous steeplechase in the world.
When they won the John Smith's Grand National in April, Niall Madden and Numbersixvalverde elaborated a familiar theme with a new beginning. The horse, jumping with a freedom grievously absent in his christening, was the fifth Irish winner in eight years. For many people, however, his jockey was a novelty - and, in the innocence of his delight, a very refreshing one too.
Madden turned 21 only last Saturday, but has already established himself as one of the most naturally gifted in a golden generation of jump jockeys. It is in his blood, of course: his father, "Boots" Madden, was one of the most admired riders of his day, albeit he never managed better than fifth in the National. "Slippers", as Madden Jnr is universally known, won the race at the first attempt, with a gossamer hold on the reins, and an iron grip on his nerves.
Martin Brassil, the trainer of Numbersixvalverde, used to ride against "Boots" as an amateur and had watched "Slippers" become champion amateur as a teenager. "He's still so young, but he takes pressure very well," Brassil reflected after watching Madden school the horse over four hurdles. "He never panics in a big race. In fact, like many of the best riders, it lifts his game. I'm sure, somewhere down the road, he'll be champion jockey. He has great hands, and is very strong for his weight. He's a laid-back lad, but very competitive when he's out there."
Madden linked up with "Number Six" when another jockey, Paddy Flood, called in sick on the morning of a race at Navan two years ago. The horse bolted in and they were on their way. "A good few doors are after opening since the National," Madden said.
"But then they do say good horses make good jockeys. It was a dream, just to ride in the race - never mind still to have a chance going over the Melling Road. We had a few close shaves early, hunting round with horses falling around us, but he got into a great rhythm on the second circuit. Obviously there's pressure on every jockey in the race, and it was my first ride, on a horse with a chance, too. But once you jump off, you have to ride it like any other race. I had walked the track with Dad in the morning and he just told me to enjoy myself. He said if I didn't enjoy this, I was in the wrong job."
Madden is understudy to Paul Carberry in the yard of the champion trainer, Noel Meade, and his other patrons include Tom Taaffe. Even so he admits that he would seriously consider "a top job" in Britain - something Nicky Henderson might do well to remember when Mick Fitzgerald retires at the end of the season.
In the meantime Brassil intends an unhurried preparation for Numbersixvalverde, who looked fresh and eager as his feet left the ground for the first time since Aintree. "He feels a year younger, not older," Madden grinned. The horse is likely to reappear over hurdles at the Leopardstown Christmas meeting, but Madden will reacquaint himself with the National fences as early as Sunday, when he rides Pearly Jack for Davy Fitzgerald in the Totesport Becher Chase.
A winner over hurdles at Limerick last weekend, Pearly Jack had previously won the Munster National at the same course. "He's a clever jumper and in good form, so I can't wait," Madden said. "I'm sure it'll bring back a lot of memories. Hopefully it wasn't beginners' luck with Number Six."
Yesterday John Smith's announced a three-year extension of their sponsorship, to 2010, with the intention of staging the first £1m National during that time - up from £700,000 at present. But they are not the only ones to have started as they mean to continue.
Nap: Scarlet Mix
NB: River Tigris
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