When did Good Friday fall on Easter Monday? It’s a questionable old gag but supposedly Good Friday was a horse that fell in the Irish Grand National. All of which goes to show that racehorses can always tip up, bad jokes are recyclable and if it is Easter Monday, it must be Fairyhouse.
No Irish sporting event is more synonymous with the date it’s held on. Easter Monday and the Irish National go together like fish and chips. Plenty mightn’t know Fairyhouse from their Fairy liquid but still realise something horsey happens today.
It is an institution, a galloping illustration of history on the hoof. That historical factor gets underlined with a vengeance at this afternoon’s landmark 150th renewal of Ireland’s richest jumps race. An annual Irish sporting ritual is back on track.
When it was abandoned in 2020 due to the Coronavirus pandemic it was just the third time the race hasn’t gone ahead. Another pandemic claimed it in 1919. The second World War got in the way in 1941.
Last year’s race, won by the shock 150-1 winner Freewheelin Dylan, was a hollow exercise in behind-closed-doors racing. But there was near unanimity on it being preferable to any idea of moving to another date.
During the early stages of the pandemic, efforts to organise a substitute autumn National got short shrift. Even the prospect of competing for a €500,000 pot couldn’t shift widespread reluctance for a National relocation outside its Easter home.
One previous deliberate attempt to divorce the race from its date wasn’t a happy experience. A misguided experiment in 1988 saw the National separated from Easter Monday and it wound up veering dangerously towards looking like just another rich handicap.
The logic behind the attempt was sound enough. Having your most valuable race of the season tied to the vagaries of the Gregorian calendar is a nightmare when it comes to race planning.
The Epsom Derby is always the first Saturday in June. The Melbourne Cup is the first Tuesday in November. The Irish Grand National revolves around how Easter Sunday can fall anytime between March 22nd and April 25th.
It took place on April 21st in 2019. In 2016 it was on March 27th. Last year Fairyhouse took place first before the English and Scottish Nationals. This time it is last, the three of them crammed into an illogical 16-day period.
The date trumps such detail though. Professionals might pine for certainty but in profile terms, having an event inextricably linked to one day is priceless and today promises a return to an ‘old normal’ with a thronged Fairyhouse the climax of a rich sporting weekend.
Pinning labels to it as being a race that stops the nation, like some Hibernian Melbourne Cup, smacks of needless over-egging. It isn’t that. But what it is feels more than enough. At a time of wider flux, the National continues to be a part of sporting and social heritage.
It has always been ‘the Dubs Day out’ such is the proximity of Fairyhouse to the capital. British army personnel were famously able to make a quick dash to Dublin when news of the Easter Rising emerged in 1916. All Sorts was the winner that year.
Almost half a century later came the most famous winner of all. Arkle made the short journey from near Killsallaghan in 1964 to win under topweight of 12 stone in front of RTÉ cameras bringing live pictures to a rapt nation.
Whether Arkle was the best chaser ever, or even in his own yard, is still debated on the back of the 1966 National. Arkle’s younger stable companion, Flyingbolt, won the National with half a stone more on his back. They are still rated the best two steeplechasers in history.
The last great horse to win was the English star Desert Orchid in 1990. Even then, however, his appearance was unusual. The egalitarian nature of handicap races, where ability is penalised by weight, is an option skipped by most top-class runners.
Instead, the National’s identity has grown around a relatively democratic spread of success that comes close to living up to the jump game’s old idea of itself.
What used to be the poor person’s Flat racing has transformed in recent years to largely become the preserve of a tiny elite of owners and trainers. The result has been unprecedented big-race success for horses trained in Ireland but confined mostly in the hands of the few.
Sure enough, Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary has eight shots at a fifth Irish National today. JP McManus also has eight chances. Gordon Elliott alone will saddle 11 of the 30 runners.
Racehorses are a luxury item by any standard so ‘little guy’ victories have a financial context. But Freewheelin Dylan’s record ‘SP’ resumed a pattern of big-priced winners for comparative minnows of the sport over the last dozen years.
Lion Na Bearnai at 33-1 in 2012 was saddled by trainer Tom Gibney. He had just four other horses in his yard at the time. A year later, the Swedish-born trainer Dot Love defied Willie Mullins to win with Liberty Counsel at 50-1. Bluesea Cracker was 25-1 in 2010.
Freewheelin Dylan set a new benchmark, but odds aren’t the only gauge of improbable success.
Max Flamingo is one just one of a handful of horses trained in north Co Dublin by Francis Casey. His colourful late father Peter gained fame back in the day with a ribald interview on RTÉ after winning a big race with Flemenstar.
Casey makes his living as a sheep farmer. Horses are a sideline. Yet Max Flamingo, a horse bred by his mother, is one of the favourites to win the biggest pot of the year.
It’s an unlikely scenario that he wins. But the National on Easter Monday has nearly a century and half of history when it comes to confounding expectations.