Racing: Slippers' golden touch promises a place among princes of the turf

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The Independent Online

On Saturday morning, "Boots" Madden walked his son round the most famous steeplechase course in the world. Though an icy wind was blowing, the grey sky sat heavily above. They stood in front of Becher's Brook, Valentine's, the Chair, each fence neatly restored after 30 horses had smashed their way across the previous afternoon. They breathed in the scent of fresh spruce, and the damp of replaced divots.

"They were much bigger in my day," Madden kept saying. "You should have seen them 20 years ago." His son responded with the same grin that would, by teatime, enchant millions who had never yet heard of him. "Jeez, Dad," he said. "They're big enough."

But Madden could tell that the boy was not nervous. "I was amazed how relaxed he was," he said yesterday. "And that's how he rode the race, too - very cool." It was in the same, tender years of his own riding career that he had acquired the nickname "Boots", because he used to clump around the stableyard in shoes that were always too big. Inevitably, his son - like himself, Niall on his birth certificate - soon became known as "Slippers" among the Irish racing fraternity.

And here he was, still only 20, riding one of the leading fancies in the John Smith's Grand National. "Slippers" was champion amateur in Ireland, never a dilettante achievement, but Numbersixvalverde none the less represented a heavy responsibility for an Aintree debutant.

Eighteen years ago, "Boots" finished fifth round here on Attitude Adjuster. Drawing on that memory, he told his son to take his time on the first circuit, just to hunt his way round as others hastened to their downfall. That would still leave him a good two miles to show what kind of jockey he is.

Sure enough, with a daring bordering on impudence, "Slippers" dropped Numbersixvalverde towards the very back of the field and concentrated on settling the horse into a rhythm. Embarking on the second circuit, both horse and rider were exuding confidence. They crept closer with each fence and suddenly, having sailed over Becher's a second time, they were poised behind the leaders just as the race began to take shape.

Soon after Ballycassidy crashed out of the lead, at Valentine's, Madden moved upsides Ruby Walsh and Tony McCoy on the two overwhelming favourites, Hedgehunter and Clan Royal. "Well, I must be doing something right," Madden said to himself.

The symbolism could scarcely have been more explicit had McCoy and Walsh ended up sliding a glass slipper on to their young rival's foot. Here were two of the masters, men whose stature in Turf history is assured. Much of the talk before the race had concerned their different fortunes in this race - McCoy had completed without mishap only twice in 10 attempts, whereas Walsh had already won it twice in just five. With three fences to jump, they were daring each other to blink first.

Yet it was the greenhorn who took control, sending Numbersixvalverde into the lead over the last and driving him six lengths clear on the long run-in. Hedgehunter followed him to the elbow on the bridle, but it soon became evident that Walsh had merely been holding him together as his big weight told in the softened ground. As they pulled up, Walsh hugged Madden, whose eyes were already reddening.

It was in 1999, at the very same age, that Walsh himself had won the National at the first attempt, on Papillon. In the meantime, he has helped to take McCoy and others to a level of competition that is surely without precedent in the history of steeplechasing. And while it would be premature to say that Madden promises to extend this golden era, his performance on Saturday certainly made him seem eligible to try.

After all, it is far less feasible nowadays for merely competent riders to win a race that no longer demands quite such extreme idiosyncrasy in a horse. Madden proved himself a class act on Saturday, not only to others but also to himself.

You will never see a horse ridden with more harmony and belief than Rosamio, Madden's first mount at humble Tramore yesterday. The mare made all the running without breaking stride for a single hurdle.

"He's always been pretty talented," his proud father said. "When he was a kid, he was into soccer, didn't want to know about horses. But when he was about 10 he asked to ride a pony and we were away every Sunday after that, hunter trials and so on. Still being so light, he'll probably get stronger. But then McCoy himself never stops learning, so he says, so I'm sure he will improve each day he rides."

For McCoy, meanwhile, the National must remain a source of torment for another year. He deserves some pity, because he sets himself the harshest of standards but will none the less be forced to endure increasingly inane analysis of his "failure" at Aintree.

So let it be recorded that he gave Clan Royal a fine ride, prudently conserving his energies early, surviving a howler at the 19th, and controlling his dynamism on a tired horse.

But the race that formally anointed Walsh, Geraghty and Carberry has now announced another young rider of flair and nerve. And McCoy will find that simply Maddening.

Where your money went at Aintree: The finishers, fallers and failures in the 159th Grand National

* Niall Madden (Numbersixvalverde, 1st): "He jumped brilliantly and travelled amazing, better than he has ever travelled."

Ruby Walsh (Hedgehunter, 2nd): "He's run a great race, but I knew when we jumped off that the ground was too soft for him."

Tony McCoy (Clan Royal, 3rd): "He made a couple of mistakes, including a serious one. He did very well to get back into the race."

Tom Treacy (Nil Desperandum, 4th): "The ground was a bit tacky for him. If he came back on better ground he'd have a serious chance."

Noel Fehily (Risk Accessor, 5th): "I thought we might win crossing the Melling Road but he didn't quite get the trip."

Barry Geraghty (Puntal, 6th): "He's run a great race considering it was his first in 18 months."

Davy Russell (Joes Edge, 7th): "He did everything you'd expect him to do."

Brian Harding (Inca Trail, 8th): "He jumped fantastic and didn't get home on ground that was too tacky."

Nina Carberry (Forest Gunner, 9th and last): "I loved every minute of it. It's given me the bug and I can't wait for some more. He got a bit tired, but that would be normal for him and he's 12 now. It was great fun to get round."

* Rodi Greene (Whispered Secret, unseated 1st fence): "He landed steep, his head dropped. I had one stirrup and that was it."

Mick Fitzgerald (Juveigneur, fell 1st): "He was travelling well at the time."

Robert Thornton (Innox, fell 1st): "He overjumped."

Christian Williams (Royal Auclair, fell 1st): "We were unlucky."

Peter Buchanan (Thyneandthyneagain, fell 1st): "He landed a bit steep."

Carl Llewellyn (Baron Windrush, unseated rider 3rd): "He dropped his back legs in the ditch."

Dominic Elsworth (Ross Comm, fell 4th): "We were going well."

Stephen Craine (Ebony Light, fell 5th): "He stood off too far."

Alan Dempsey (Just In Debt, fell 6th): "He didn't get his landing gear out."

Jamie Moore (Le Duc, unseated rider 8th): "He jumped the first few grand."

Sam Thomas (Silver Birch, fell 15th): "He just got his legs caught in the Chair."

David Casey (Jack High, unseated 15th): "He gave me a great ride until leaving his legs behind."

JP McNamara (Heros Collonges, unseated 15th): "As we went to the Chair the ones in front slowed and he went in the back of them."

Jason Maguire (Lord Of Illusion, pulled up 17th): "He bled going to the Chair, so I pulled him up."

Marcus Foley (Iris Royal, pulled up 17th): "He jumped slow at the water and I pulled him up. I didn't want to put him on his head."

Garrett Cotter (Garvivonnian, pulled up 17th): "I've no excuses, although he did get a bit worked up in the preliminaries. He didn't take to it like in the Becher."

Andrew Tinkler (Shotgun Willy, pulled up 18th): "He just got tired too quick."

Liam Heard (Le Roi Miguel, pulled up 19th): "He gave me a lovely ride."

Joe Tizzard (Cornish Rebel, pulled up 19th): "I pulled him up second time round."

Tony Dobbin (Direct Access, pulled up 19th): "He didn't take to the place."

Keith Mercer (Haut De Gamme, fell 20th): "He was on empty."

Graham Lee (Amberleigh House, pulled up 21st): "Old Father Time just caught up with him, that's all."

Paul Carberry (Sir Oj, fell 22nd): "He was a bit launchy, then his backend came up and he rolled over."

Richie McGrath (First Gold, unseated 23rd): "He tired. I was trying to fill his lungs when he made a mistake."

Leighton Aspell (Ballycassidy, fell 25th): "He deserved to get round. He'd been in front a long time. Who knows where we'd have finished?"

John Cullen (Colnel Rayburn, pulled up 27th): "He got tired very quickly."

Andrew McNamara (Rince Ri, pulled up 27th): "A horse fell in front and he refused."

Tom Scudamore (Iznogoud, pulled up 27th): "It was too soft for him."

Conor O'Dwyer (Native Upmanship, refused 27th): "The starter didn't hear me shouting 'no'. I lost 20 lengths. It made a difference as he had to make up ground and got tired."

Richard Johnson (Therealbandit, pulled up 27th): "He didn't really stay. Slightly better ground would have helped."

Timmy Murphy (It Takes Time, pulled up 29th): "It was too soft for him."

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