Vinny seeks an Augusta pick-me-up after his Aintree debacle

A Grand National faller, the burly busman bounces back up to seek Masters salvation

Pineau de Re, ridden by Leighton Aspell, on his way to victory in the 2014 Grand National Steeple Chase at Aintree, with not a penny of  Vinny Fitzpatrick’s money on him. Photograph: Russell Cheyne/Reuters

Pineau de Re, ridden by Leighton Aspell, on his way to victory in the 2014 Grand National Steeple Chase at Aintree, with not a penny of Vinny Fitzpatrick’s money on him. Photograph: Russell Cheyne/Reuters

Wed, Apr 9, 2014, 06:00

If the portly figure clinging grimly to a lamp post at twenty to five on Saturday afternoon seemed familiar to Vernon Avenue regulars, it was because he should have been. Many Clontarf folk knew Vinny Fitzpatrick, whether he was behind the wheel of the 130 or holding court in the bar in Foley’s public house.

And to see him gasping for breath, clearly out of sorts, was an occasion for concern. More than one passer-by inquired after the bus driver’s well-being. Yet any offer of assistance were brushed away with a swat of a meaty paw and a blast of “Gerr ourrah that, I’m grand”.

Yet, what could have caused such a convulsion? Was it a row with the missus, Angie? A tainted pint? Or that extra helping of spicy sausage tucked into so vigorously in Desperate Dan’s Deli for lunch?

No. it was the outcome of the greatest steeplechase in the world, which had made Vinny’s capacious tummy turn sour.

The Grand National at Aintree was regarded by Vinny as the supreme punting challenge, much the same way mountaineers have to tackle Everest, simply because it’s there. And each year, Vinny invested more time, energy, and hard-earned cash on uncovering the winner of the world’s most illustrious race than was probably good for him.

At times, he hit the bull, sometimes even treble top. But on this April afternoon, each of his arrows had hit the wire and rebounded into thin air.

Five contenders
With painstaking precision, Vinny had narrowed the field down to five contenders, four of which he backed to win, at €50 each, while the fifth – a long shot – was backed each-way for a pony. The horses selected were: Balthazar King, Double Seven, Rocky Creek, Monbeg Dude and Across The Bay.

Such was Vinny’s tungsten-like confidence, he happily shared his convictions in Boru Betting with his old punting partner, The Reverend, who tapped his nose clandestinely and took due note.

Against the odds, four of the quintet finished in the first seven, but not first past the post, while the fifth, Across The Bay, was carried across the width of the racecourse and almost into the mouth of the Mersey by a loose horse when miles clear.

It was a rum show, not a Red Rum one, “Enough to give any man the dry gawks,” spluttered Vinny as he high-tailed it from Foley’s shortly after the unheralded 25/1 winner, Pineau De Re, had crossed the line in splendid isolation. “I’m going outside and may be some time,” he fumed.

He was €200 lighter of pocket, which stung, as Vinny, for all his good nature, wasn’t always a good loser, not when there was enough cash down to keep him in pints for the Easter Bank Holiday weekend.

What gnawed away almost as much as he gasped for breath was the National’s unerring capacity to throw up a winner with a an improbable storyline.

There was the veteran Irish jockey with the Welsh Christian name, Leighton, and the Anglo-Saxon family name, Aspell, who gave up riding for two years but came back because he was missing the craic. And there was the owner-trainer, Richard Newland, a bespectacled GP with more patients than horses, who was saddling his first runner in the great race.

And not forgetting the former Irish owner, Barry Connell, who first rode Pineau De Re and sold him a year ago, presumably never thinking his staying plodder would win the richest of all jumps races.

The National didn’t conform to rhyme or reason, it was a law unto itself, yielding unheralded winners, many of which, Vinny observed, were accompanied by an increasingly garlicky whiff. Since Papillon won in 2000, Mon Mome (2009) and Neptune Collonges (2012) had given the National a distinctly French flavour. And now, Pineau De Re.

For wimps
He’d heard someone in the commentary babble on about the horse being named after an aperitif wine from the Charente region, wherever that was. Aperitif wine? Such a drink was for wimps, thought Vinny, whose only exception to a pre-dinner pint of stout was the occasional stiff G & T.

As the shock impact of the Grand National lessened, and he calmed down, Vinny was struck by the need to muck out the ruins from the Aintree stables and gallop on.

Aware his second favourite sporting contest, The Masters, was following quickly on the hooves of his first, Vinny’s thoughts swung towards Augusta as he lessened his grip on the lamp-post and pushed himself upright. There was, he knew, a little time to regroup, study form, assess green-jacketed pointers and make the right financial call.

Unlike the National, you could draw a line through many of the 97-strong Masters field, such as the former champs, amateurs and most of the newcomers who needed to only pack two days’ clothing. What was required at Augusta more than anything was a sure hand on the slippery greens, and an ability to pull off recovery shots, like the swashbuckling Seve in his prime.

Suddenly, a name thrust itself forward from the azaleas; it was that of a fearless young man who would provide considerable financial comfort for the wounded bus driver should he win. Just as a French-named horse had won the Grand National, so a Gallic son, Victor Dubuisson, would succeed, where elder contemporaries Jean Van De Velde and Thomas Levet had so gloriously failed, in Majors.

Straightening up, Vinny patted down the few strands left on his bald pate, adjusted his shirt, and strode purposefully into Boru Betting. As he pushed open the doors, heads lifted from newspapers as he roared: “To the victor, the spoils!”

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