Ruby Walsh aims for ‘lucky 13th’ and third National win

Eleven Irish-trained horses tackle world’s most famous race at Aintree

Luck is vital in the Grand National but few jockeys have ever had more of a knack for ensuring their own big-race good fortune than Ruby Walsh who can make it a 'Lucky 13th' Aintree spin on Pleasant Company.

The fact that luck has spectacularly deserted Ireland’s legendary champion jockey when it comes to riding in the National recently doesn’t dilute a record that bears comparison with any other rider in modern times.

The Englishman George Stevens won the National five times in the middle of the 19th century but Walsh bows to no contemporary in terms of his mastery of the unique Aintree challenge.

Having won on his first attempt as a 20-year-old on Papillon in 2000, he scored again on Hedgehunter in 2005, finished runner-up on the same horse a year later and has finished third, as well as fourth on two occasions. Walsh has failed to finish just three times in his previous dozen National rides.


No one rides the big fences better but Walsh has endured the frustration of missing the race four times in the last six years including in 2016 when fracturing his wrist the day before the race.

It’s perhaps just as well then that he isn’t tempting fate by riding on the Aintree undercard.

Nevertheless if the National’s public reputation as a betting lottery has been boosted in the last five years by a pair of 33/1 winning starting prices, two 25/1 winners and the 66/1 Aurora’s Encore, it always helps to keep as much on your side as possible and Walsh is a major plus to Pleasant Company’s chance.

The lightly raced Willie Mullins-trained horse benefited from a vintage Walsh effort when landing Fairyhouse’s traditional National Trial, the Bobbyjo Chase, in February.

Patience personified

The champion jockey was patience personified and put Pleasant Company’s nose in front practically on the line ahead of Thunder And Roses. Conditions were heavy that day and it’s to the horse’s credit he won at all because he will be much more at home on the National’s near perfect surface.

Pleasant Company thrived on better ground to win at last season's Punchestown festival and having moved to Mullins from David Pipe just over two years ago he remains relatively unexposed in what will be just his 10th start for Ireland's champion handler.

Trained all season to peak for this race, the prospect of the 149-rated Pleasant Company finding significant improvement for different ground is one to shake the confidence of his 39 rivals, 10 of which are also Irish-trained.

With five of them owned by Michael O'Leary, and three representing Gordon Elliott, the Mullins camp might be forgiven for feeling surrounded by the rivals who have compromised their dominance both at home and at the Cheltenham Festival this season.

O’Leary’s spat with the British handicapper over how his original top three rated horses were assessed hasn’t prevented him pitching in a handful of hopefuls trying to follow in Rule The World’s memorable hoof-prints from last year.

Bryan Cooper got his Gigginstown pick wrong on that occasion and has opted to ride Rogue Angel this time, leaving the door open to a first National ride for 17-year-old sensation Jack Kennedy on Roi Des Francs.

He is one of three Elliott-trained hopefuls led by Cause Of Causes who holds a leading chance, although Barry Geraghty’s decision to ride another JP McManus hope, More Of That, can’t be ignored.

Another figure with multiple representation is Britain's champion trainer Paul Nicholls, who will have four bullets to fire, as will David Pipe, whose quartet includes the well-fancied stayer, Vieux Lion Rouge.

Modifications to the fences

But since the aptly named Lottery won the first National in 1839, just one horse has been required to win it and the old firm of Mullins and Walsh look to have that one.

Modifications to the fences over the years mean there isn’t as much of an ‘Aintree factor’ anymore but previous experience is hardly a negative either and much quicker ground could see the 2015 runner-up Saint Are again run a big race at a big price.

Overnight rain ruined Saint Are's chance a year ago but his shrewd trainer, who also has Double Shuffle in the race, reckons the veteran is as good as ever and he sports first-time blinkers which will help jockey Davy Russell.

It's those same fence modifications which could be just the job for the Gold Cup fifth Saphir Du Rheu. He's inconsistent but has a touch of class and looks attractively handicapped on his Cheltenham effort. Venetia Williams won with the 100/1 Mon Mome in 2009 and her hope Tenor Nivernais could be another to go well at a big price.

Three Grade One races feature on the run-in to the National which is due off at 5.15 and the Gold Cup winner Robbie Power, who rides Regal Encore in the big race, will hope for a perfect confidence boost on Jessica Harrington's Supasundae in the Stayers Hurdle.

The beaten Champion Hurdle favourite Yanworth could be tough to beat though now he’s stepped up to three miles.

Aintree: 1.45- No Comment 2.25- Brio Conti 3.00- Charbel 3.40- Potters Legend 4.20- Yanworth 6.15- So Celebre

Grand National 5.15: 1: Pleasant Company. 2: Saint Are. 3: Saphir Du Rheu. 4: Tenor Nivernais.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

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