Racing: Ross River ready to repel raiders in marathon

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The Independent Online

For much of its distinguished history, the record of British-trained horses in the Irish Grand National has been as miserable as the traffic on the M25 on an Easter Monday. Just seven raiders have succeeded in the Fairyhouse feature, a race which the home side defend with particular zeal. And understandably so, for it remains the most valuable chase in the country's calendar; today's 136th running is worth £95,000 to the winner.

The race's roll of honour is embellished by some of the greatest names of Irish racing, including Prince Regent, Fortria, Arkle, Flyingbolt and the sole triple winner Brown Lad. The performances of Arkle and Flyingbolt bear close inspection. In 1964 Arkle carried 12st to a length and a quarter victory over Height O'Fashion, who was in receipt of 30lb. Two years later his younger stablemate shouldered 12st 7lb and beat the same good mare two lengths, giving her 40lb.

Thirty-two days earlier Flyingbolt had finished third in the Champion Hurdle, the day after winning the Champion Chase in a canter by 15 lengths. His performance at Fairyhouse goes some way to explaining to today's generation of racegoers just why he was rated only 2lb shy of "himself" on the all-time pantheon.

Flyingbolt gave Tom Dreaper his tenth Irish National, and seventh in a row, after Splash, Arkle, Last Link, Kerforo, Fortria and Olympia. Brown Lad, trained by Dreaper's son Jim, continued the good work for the Kilsallaghan yard and the reception given after he wore down Sand Pit close home to reclaim his crown in 1978 at the age of 12 under top-weight and coming back from injury, was the stuff of legend. Desert Orchid, easily the best of the British winners, was another to prove top class will out when he scored under 12st, giving between 26lb and 28lb to 13 rivals in 1990. There have been less distinguished winners, though, even bizarre ones. If Brown Lad was the Irish National's equivalent of Red Rum, then possibly its Foinavon may be found in Alike, successful in 1929 when ridden by Frank Wise, who was missing three fingers and rode with a wooden leg.

The focus on Irish National with the real thing in view has sharpened in recent seasons. Bobbyjo, the winner at Fairyhouse nine years ago, was the third horse to win both races (after Ascetic's Silver and Rhyme 'N' Reason) but the first to follow up at Aintree the following season. His feat was repeated last year by Numbersixvalverde and last year's Irish winner Point Barrow is one of the favourites for Saturday's marathon. There are six challengers from British stables among the 30 runners this afternoon. Three are trained by Irishmen in exile - Distant Thunder by Noel Chance, Butler's Cabin by Jonjo O'Neill and Nine de Sivola by Ferdy Murphy, who sent over Granit d'Estruval to score three years ago - and all would be forgiven for plundering the booty. Distant Thunder and Nicky Henderson's charge Juveigneur, separated by a short-head when third and second in the William Hill Chase at Cheltenham last month, are vying for favouritism for the three-mile, two furlong contest, along with Cloudy Lane, winner of the Kim Muir at the Festival, from Donald McCain's yard. But it may be safer to stick with the locals. The presence of top-weight Cane Brake, fifth in the Gold Cup, means that only 13 of his rivals are racing off their correct marks. One of them is his stablemate Kings Advocate who, as a novice, fits the profile of some recent winners, as does Gazza's Girl. But a chance is taken with Ross River (3.55), who is lightly-raced for an 11-year-old, has kept good company with credit in the past and put in an eye-catching prep over hurdles at Cheltenham.

Chris McGrath

Nap: James Street (Plumpton 2.30)

NB: Bob Ar Aghaidh (Fakenham 4.55)