Katie Walsh a force of nature as Thunder blows rivals away

Hugely popular winner for trainer Sandra Hughes and jockey Walsh

Something seismic was necessary to shift Tony McCoy off Fairyhouse's centre-stage but Katie Walsh managed it with aplomb in a dramatic Boylesports Irish Grand National success on the Sandra Hughes-trained Thunder And Roses.

Just the third woman to ride the winner of Ireland's most-coveted steeplechase prize, Walsh was following in the footsteps of her brother Ruby, twice a winner, including on Commanche Court, trained by their father, Ted Walsh, while Walsh's sister-in-law Nina Carberry also landed the €275,000 prize in 2011.

But a day tagged as Ladies Day wound up fitting the bill perfectly as Hughes became only the third woman to train an Irish Grand National winner, a dozen years after her late father, Dessie Hughes, won it with Timbera.

He passed away in November and his daughter said: “Dad always loved this race and it’s wonderful to do it for him. This horse disappointed us at Cheltenham but we decided to let him take his chance because he stays so well. Someone above was helping us. Dad was with us all the way.”


Crucial stamina

The 20/1 winner’s stamina proved crucial in an eight minute-plus slog on soft ground that saw six horses, including the highly fancied Empire Of Dirt, exit at the first fence and ultimately saw just nine of the twenty eight runners finish.

Two of the thirty declarations – Grand Jesture and Usuel Smurfer – were non-runners due to coughing but were taken out too late to allow reserves into the race.

Tony McCoy, riding in his last Irish National before his looming retirement, finished sixth on Cantlow and with so much incident, the fact that Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown Stud not only had the first and second – Thunder and Roses and Rule The World - but also the fourth, Band Of Blood, got comparatively overlooked. Only the third, Sizing Coal, upset the O’Leary finish.

The Ryanair boss, winning his second Irish National, was away on holidays, but in the circumstances there was never going to be a contest in identifying the focus of attention.

Walsh, 30, famously got closer than any woman to winning the Aintree National in 2012 when Seabass was third, an accomplishment that makes her an official ambassador for Saturday’s big race, for which she is available to ride in if another ‘spare’ becomes available.

As a jockey with a pair of Cheltenham festival victories under her belt, as well as a Kerry National win last September, she hardly needs her abilities advertised but as reminders go, an Irish National win just five days before Liverpool is perfect timing.

“I’ve enjoyed some great days and been very lucky but this is right up there. It’s the Irish National, it’s Fairyhouse, it’s Ireland, it’s local, it’s a race I never dreamed of winning: it’s magical,” she said.


Hugged afterwards by her brother Ruby who pulled up on Perfect Gentleman, the popular rider was riding Thunder And Roses for the first time and only found out she was riding the horse on Friday.

Michael O’Leary’s brother Eddie admitted Empire Of Dirt was the ‘No 1’ among Gigginstown’s six runners but if Thunder And Roses came into the race under the radar, his jockey’s big-race flair came to the fore with a vengeance.

“She’s an amateur in name only, and very accomplished as she’s shown by riding winners at Cheltenham,” said an admiring McCoy afterwards. “I think she’s better than her brother!”

But 31 years after Ann Ferris created history by riding an Irish Grand National winner this was a singular moment for Walsh that came in a broader context which she quickly acknowledged: “It’s great for women in racing.”

Mark Enright was taken to hospital with a suspected broken arm after his first fence fall from The Job Is Right and Kevin Sexton broke his nose when Lion Na Bearnai exited.

Ruby Walsh took over the lead in the jockey’s championship with a double on Vroum Vroum Mag and Sempre Medici that took him to 70 winners for the season, and on target for a record-equalling 10th riders title.

They were part of a hat-trick on the day for Willie Mullins who also scored in the juvenile hurdle with Buiseness Sivola who initiated a 39/1 double for Paul Townend which was completed by Tony Martin's I Shot The Sherriff.

Martin set the tone for a memorable day for Gigginstown, and recorded the middle leg of his own hat-trick, when Dedigout justified substantial market support with a smooth Grade Two victory in the Keelings Hurdle.

Bryan Cooper's Cheltenham suspensions meant Paul Carberry came in for the ride and Dedigout thrived in the soft conditions to beat Thousand Stars by three lengths.

Right time “We’ll lock him up for next year now,” said Martin who wasn’t alone in admiring Carberry’s performance. “That’s Carberry: he just sits up and gives them a squeeze at the right time. Luckily enough there was something there when he squeezed!”

Carberry later got a two-day whip ban when edged out by Aurora Bell in a handicap chase.

The Easter Monday crowd of 16,621 was up almost 400 on 2014.

McCoy winds up his Easter commitments in Ireland today with two Fairyhouse rides including the Galway Hurdle winner Thomas Edison in one handicap hurdle and Rathpatrick, who could thrive for the step up to three miles in another.

The Grade Two-featured Normans Grove Chase has just three runners and looks a perfect opportunity for the hugely progressive Mallowney.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor is the racing correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Tipping Point column