Though the Irish may be only occasional heroes with the bat and ball, what they are good at is saddle and silks – particularly at Aintree. They also turn a fair hand to pen and paper and yesterday in rural Co Westmeath the last two alliterative pairs came together.
It took someone of the calibre and imagination of Oliver Goldsmith to rhyme Stygian with pigeon, which he did in a song in his comedy She Stoops To Conquer. The name of the point-to-point course near Athlone – deep in Goldsmith country – is The Pigeons, derived from a pub in the lyric. Perhaps the late playwright would deem it fitting that the Grand National candidate who ran and won there yesterday is called Backstage.
The bay nine-year-old, who had little more than an exercise canter to take the Open at the South Westmeath Hunt's meeting, is around the 14-1 mark to become the seventh Irish-trained National winner in 13 years. One of his predecessors was Silver Birch, likewise trained by Gordon Elliot in Co Meath and also given outside-the-box preps before his Aintree victory four years ago, winning a point-to-point and running second in a cross-country chase.
Backstage, who was going well when unseating his rider deep into the second circuit at Aintree last year after being hampered, won easily on the undulating left-hand track yesterday, beating a decent veteran in Newbay Prop seven lengths. It was Backstage's second victory between the flags in a month under Jamie Codd; he will not appear again until the big day in April, when Paul Carberry will take over the reins.
"He won on the bridle with his head in his chest," said Elliott. "It was basically just a piece of work for him to give him a good blow and a bit of confidence and it worked out perfect. Jamie was very impressed; he said he's improved a lot from the last day. He's already had experience at Aintree, so which road we take back there isn't important."
Those who run the historic point-to-point course will be hoping that its latest graduate does better in the National than the last to go from one to the other. That was Wicked Crack, who was in the lead when she crashed out at the first in 2002, Bindaree's year.
In most betting lists Backstage is jostling for second place in the Aintree market, behind his compatriot The Midnight Club, with the likes of Ballabriggs, Big Fella Thanks and Niche Market, who did not come through their dress rehearsals at the weekend with such aplomb, although none seriously fluffed their lines in defeat.
Ballabriggs, from the Donald McCain yard, lost most ground in the betting, eased a couple of points after being caught and passed on Kelso's long run-in by National outsider Skippers Brig.
Before Aintree comes Cheltenham. Lift-off at the Festival is tomorrow week (snow allowing – yes, there is a forecast for some of the white stuff) and, horses being horses, not all will get through the countdown. Ruled out yesterday on nine was Riverside Theatre, who had been second favourite for the Ryanair Chase but will now not be seen again until next season.
The talented seven-year-old, second to Nicky Henderson stablemate Long Run in the King George VI Chase before gaining his own Grade One victory in last month's Ascot Chase, has sustained a slight fracture to his pelvis. "He was lame after exercise," said Henderson, "and though we hoped the problem might have been muscular, a scan revealed the hairline fracture. It's a shame, but he's still young and the vets are confident he'll be fine for next season."
Brian Harding, who rode Skippers Brig, hurt an arm later when falling three out on Moufatango in the two-and-three-quarter-mile handicap hurdle and will miss Cheltenham after X-rays confirmed a minor break. He hopes to recover in time to be reunited with Saturday's hero in the National.
Saturday's impressive Doncaster winner, Montbazon, cut in some lists to 12-1 for Cheltenham's Champion Bumper, will miss the Festival in favour of the equivalent at Aintree. "He looks good," said his trainer Alan King, "but next week will come too quick, so we'll keep him back. He's an exciting prospect."
Chris McGrath's Nap
Round The Horn (4.15 Newton Abbot)
Has a better engine than bodywork hence a light career but won well last time.
Alla Svelta (2.00 Newton Abbot)
Caught a tartar on each of his hurdles outings but showed enough ability and pace to indicate he can take this.
One to watch
Laterly (S Gollings) made up for an unseat on his seasonal hurdling debut with a runaway success next time and still looks ahead of the handicapper.
Where the money's going
Ladbrokes guarantee best prices today on the favourites for the top Festival races: Binocular 100-30 (Champion Hurdle), Master Minded 3-1 (Champion Chase), Big Buck's 6-5 (World Hurdle) and Imperial Commander 7-2 (Gold Cup).