Racing: Mitchell's National plan rooted in rugged turf
Monday 03 April 2006
Depending on conditions, Paul Nicholls will run up to seven horses in the John Smith's Grand National on Saturday. If Ned Mitchell did the same, his Co Limerick stables would be left just about empty. Precisely because of its fearsome ups and downs, however, there is no more level playing field than Aintree, and the champion trainer-elect would not presume to beat Garvivonnian with any one of his seven. As Mitchell himself said of the place yesterday: "Everyone's equal at that game. It's a great leveller, isn't it?"
He should know. He has run two horses at Aintree. The first was Seeandem, whose death at Becher's Brook 17 years ago contributed to the taming of the old fences. The other one is Garvivonnian, who was sent over on reconnaissance back in November. He sailed over the ditch that claimed Seeandem, landed in front, was headed halfway up the run-in, and rallied bravely for a narrow success.
Though the race nowadays demands slightly less idiosyncratic talents than was once the case, his proven aptitude for the course will qualify Garvivonnian for many shortlists over the coming days. As a dour galloper who loves testing ground, moreover, he is well prepared for the most extreme test of his career.
He warmed up at Fairyhouse last time by chasing home Forget The Past, who then went to Cheltenham and ran third in the Gold Cup itself. Hedgehunter became hot favourite to repeat his National success of last year when finishing seven lengths in front of Forget The Past at Cheltenham, but he must give Garvivonnian 18lb.
Mitchell is a profoundly retiring man, prone to deep, evasive chuckles, but there was no dissembling when he assessed his horse's condition. "He's right," he said firmly. "Never been fitter. There's a good all-weather we can use up the road from here, and we took him there this morning. He worked alone - we could never get another horse into the lorry with him and hope to get it out alive. That's the kind of horse he is. He's very hardy. The other horse we took to Liverpool was a bit of a coward, really. But this one . . .
"Everyone could see how he took to the place in November. Ruby Walsh rode him in Tralee a couple of years ago and he said he'd be a real type for those fences. He's always been an athletic jumper and this race has been on the cards for a long time now. You can take it that he's ready."
Mitchell was seated in an immaculate little sitting room in an immaculate little house, built 20 years ago on family farmland. On a blustery, washed out day of high cloud and spring sunshine, an outcrop of gorse and rock hid a spreading horizon of hills. "We still have a few cattle," he said. "But farming's gone to the dogs. We keep about 10 horses. They've always been in the family, horses - my father trained a bit, rode in point-to-points. He was a knowledgeable man. We have a bit of steep land around the place, we can take this horse somewhere different every day. He'd never do the same thing twice."
In his sparse way, Mitchell clearly knows how to make the most of nugatory resources. "This horse's dam cost IR£500 as a foal and we won the mares' final at Punchestown with her," he said. "But then she got a leg, so they went breeding with her. The sire was standing just up the road from here for 300 quid. Between them they got Garvivonnian, and he's the fifth horse we have had to win 10 races."
A couple of years ago Mitchell sent a filly up to the Curragh and won a handicap under the noses of all the top Flat yards. The following weekend she won a £50,000 race at Leopardstown. But his fatalistic approach to what might prove the defining moment of his career reflects his indifference to the notion that he might have justified greater ambition before now. "We've always just drifted along, never wanted more than a handful of horses," he said. "We're happy with our lot. You take the good with the bad, because you will always have more bad than good. There's no point getting overexcited. For all we know, he might get brought down at the first."
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