National clean sweep most visible evidence yet of Irish racing’s golden age

Irish-trained horses set a new record after taking first four places in Aintree feature

Alpha Des Obeaux ridden by Rachael Blackmore falls at the chair fence during the Grand National at Aintree racecourse. Photograph: Peter Powell/EPA

Alpha Des Obeaux ridden by Rachael Blackmore falls at the chair fence during the Grand National at Aintree racecourse. Photograph: Peter Powell/EPA

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Never before had Irish-trained horses swept the first four places in the Aintree Grand National. And it’s the National’s singular profile which makes Tiger Roll’s epic success the most public of stamps on an unprecedented level of international success for Irish racing.

In 2016 Aidan O’Brien saddled a 1-2-3 in Europe’s greatest flat race, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. Last year his son, Joseph, led home an Irish clean sweep of the Melbourne Cup in Australia. In between came a record Cheltenham festival haul of 19 winners for Irish-trained horses.

Even by the standards of excellence traditionally associated to Ireland’s fascination with the running horse – and the jumping horse in particular – this is unarguably a golden age for the sport here.

However it’s the National’s unique place in the sporting mainstream which makes Saturday’s “green rout” in Liverpool the most visible evidence of it to the most people.   

The great races of the flat have quality and Cheltenham will always be the mecca for jumping purists. But nothing else in racing pierces the mainstream consciousness to the extent the Aintree National does. As statements of dominance go this was as public as it gets.

Predicted

Tiger Roll’s owner, Michael O’Leary, predicted afterwards it will change. Racing success has always been as cyclical as it is precarious. And the Ryanair boss will be proved right, maybe even sooner rather than later. But this was still a unique National for unique times.

Certainly domestic competition has never before transferred so seamlessly to Aintree. Both Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins dominate Ireland’s National Hunt scene like no one else ever has. It is their combined power and excellence which also underpins so much of this Irish success.

So the sight of Elliott’s Tiger Roll just holding off Mullins’s Pleasant Company by a head at the end of a National finish for the ages corresponded to a bigger overall narrative set to continue to Punchestown in a couple of weeks with another epic clash for the trainer’s title.

Both men had won the National before and that it was Elliott who added to his breakthrough 2007 victory with Silver Birch will be regarded by many as an indicator of momentum ultimately taking him to first trainers championship.

It is momentum that has already seen Elliott break the mould by saddling 200 winners in an Irish season and it’s underpinned by an alliance with O’Leary’s Gigginstown Stud team which was also winning the National for a second time.

That alliance is bringing others in its wake, such as the career Indian Summer being enjoyed by veteran rider Davy Russell who is already assured of being crowned champion jockey later this month.

The 38-year-old was winning a first National on his 14th attempt. Considering he lost the job as Gigginstown’s number one rider in 2013, when famously invited by O’Leary for a cup of tea, Russell’s return to favour is as much a reflection of his resilience as his talent.

Russell’s ambitions once extended no further than the point to point field that’s at the heart of how many jumping fans view the sport.

That current racecourse success is built on a concentration of wealth and resources among a small number of personalities smacks of an elitism at odds with National Hunt racing’s traditional view of itself. And it’s hard to convincingly run up any kind of National flag if you can’t afford to.

Deepest pockets

By its nature though racing has always had haves and have nots. And elite sport is by nature elitist. The deepest pockets usually emerge on top.

“There are now a number of seriously stupid people in Ireland like myself, JP McManus and Rich Ricci who are spending lots of money to keep the better horses at home, and that helps the trainers too,” O’Leary argued on Saturday.

The evidence of that investment is stamped over much of Irish jump racing right now. And if it isn’t as egalitarian as it once supposedly was then the 26th Aintree National winner trained in Ireland reflects how things are always changing.

Tiger Roll was the smallest horse in the race, a flat-bred former Triumph Hurdle winner once dismissed by his owner as “a little rat of a thing.” Over the old stiffer National test he mightn’t have even been sighted.

But at the end of four and a quarter miles and 30 fences, the diminutive hero had enough of the traditional virtues of grit and resolve to win the second closest National finish ever. Neptune Collonges won by just a nose six years ago.

It’s also traditional to allocate nationality to the patch of ground a horse is trained on.

Some people get annoyed when horses get claimed by Britain despite being owned, bred, trained or ridden by Irish people.

But ultimately claim does come down to the racing culture these horses are part of. And in Liverpool on Saturday Irish racing was able to claim dominance like never before.

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