Racing Commentary / Grand National: Miinnehoma exorcises demons for Pipe: A season beset by doubt and disaster is redeemed for the champion trainer by gaining the Grail of his greatest victory

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The Independent Online
TWO OUT in the Grand National and Richard Dunwoody shouted over heatedly to his main rival in both the race and the jockeys' championship, Adrian Maguire. Several hours later, the message was to pass the butter as the champion jockey celebrated his victory on Miinnehoma in a restaurant near his Wantage home with his fellow Irishman and colleagues from the weighing room.

National Hunt racing is a perilous game, in which combatants have a rare feeling for their rivals, and in few sports does the heat of battle cool as quickly as it does here. Those on Saturday who completed felt privileged, especially as they numbered just six of the 36 starters.

For Dunwoody it was an upbeat moment in a season that has leaned towards the disastrous. Just three weeks ago he was in dry dock as the Cheltenham Festival took place, a victim of suspension after forcing Maguire through the wings of an obstacle.

Dunwoody's Cheltenham week was spent skiing in the French Alps, and he may have been tempted to throw himself down a crevasse, but the bad times seemed some time away after Miinnehoma had repelled Just So's late challenge. 'After the initial shock of missing Cheltenham everything was OK,' he said yesterday. 'I recharged the batteries and came back more relaxed.

It was terrible to miss Cheltenham but this has made up for it 10 times over. Winning the National and the championship are two totally different things, but at the moment I wouldn't swap this for anything.'

Martin Pipe, Miinnehoma's trainer, is almost certain to consider this the greatest moment of a great career, especially as he has felt the hobgoblins closing in during recent months.

Like the Manchester United manager, Alex Ferguson, the champion trainer has unwisely taken on a fortress mentality, treating anyone from outside his walls with suspicion. He believes everyone would like to see him fail, a paranoia which is one certain way to actually get popular opinion against you.

Seldom can one man have changed a sport like Martin Pipe. A disciple of lung-busting training for his string, he has received the ultimate accolade of imitation by many of his National Hunt colleagues.

But in recent times, when many of his horses have been touched by the virus, Pipe has become worried that the pack has caught up and now talks about finding another Grail, another breakthrough to push him clear of the hounds once more.

Pipe is so used to winning he sometimes appears indifferent to victory. But Saturday was different. As Dunwoody pulled up Miinnehoma, the first man to reach him was the trainer, skipping over the battle ground like an insect on the surface of a pond. Pipe had watched the manoeuvres from the winning post and did not realise for some time that he was part of the victorious team.

'The first time I knew we'd won was when Richard punched the air,' he said yesterday. 'I ran across the course without a thought for the other horses or my own safety. I have waited a long time for this.'

This ecstasy was because a demon had been banished, the notion that Martin Charles Pipe would never be a force in the top races. Pipe has undoubtedly built his omnipotence on winning events of little consequence and there is a school of thought that Pipe is a great (physical) trainer of horses but not much of a strategist. That his skills in preparing a horse for a single objective are limited.

Meat has been put on the theory this year, with Pipe's scattergun approach to major prizes. He entered 11 horses for the Gold Cup and 17 for the National, creating the belief that he was panicking in an effort to add to his biggest previous win, Granville Again's 1993 Champion Hurdle.

Pipe knows these doubts are there and it was never going to be long before he mentioned it in Saturday's post-race conference. While Dunwoody, his face scratched and lacerated by his trade, and the trainer's wife, Carol, with the look of a 1920s flapper, sat composed to his left, Pipe was hyperventilating and pawing emotionally at his eyes, taken both by jubilation and justification. He said he had answered a section of the press corps.

The victory took him to over pounds 600,000 in prize money this season and he may yet catch David Nicholson and hold on to his trainers' championship.

He surfs on the board of Dunwoody's admiration. 'I think there has been pressure on Martin because of what has happened in previous seasons and people expecting so much,' the jockey said. 'But from our point of view, from the professionals in the sport, he didn't need vindication as he has done it all before.'

Pipe's sternest duties yesterday were to top up the glasses at his Somerset yard and to maintain his hairstyle as Freddie Starr, Miinnehoma's owner, arrived at the stables in the trainer's helicopter.

The comedian, who won pounds 330,000 in bets alone, had not pulled on his galoshes for sodden Liverpool as he had been working, first in Nottingham and then Croydon, but was still struck lyrically by the achievement of his horse. 'People dream about seeing the sun set over the Taj Mahal,' he said. 'It was my dream to see my horse win the Grand National, and I've had it since childhood.'

After the void race of 12 months ago, much was traditional about the 1994 Grand National. Jenny Pitman wore a new hat, Des Lynam, who rather than bags under his eyes has a full set of luggage these days, interviewed her, and the BBC, once again, transformed a handicap around a course designed to keep spectators in the dark as much as possible into one of the most watchable pieces of sport in the calendar.

What was different was that this was a throwback National. For better or worse, and probably worse, only a small proportion of the field completed, much like the old days when the course was a slaughterhouse without walls. (Dunwoody's belief was that the boggy going made all the fences ride six inches higher).

This will not matter to Martin Pipe. When television coverage of the race opened on Saturday morning it was possible to see, behind Channel 4's Jim McGrath, a large lorry belonging to the Samaritans. Pipe may not have seen it, but he will appreciate 9 April as the day his reputation as a trainer of horses in top races was rescued.

(Photograph omitted)