Irish Grand National to have maximum field of 30 runners at Fairyhouse

Special protocols will be in place to avoid congestion in the parade ring on Easter Monday

It will be a Boylesports Irish Grand National like no other on Easter Monday but at least one familiar aspect to the Fairyhouse feature is a maximum field of 30 runners.

That will make it the biggest field of horses lining up since racing went behind closed doors last June.

Arrangements to avoid congestion in the parade ring before the most valuable race of the Irish National Hunt season have been put in place.

They include plans for some of the runners to remain in the pre-parade ring before the big race.

"We have 30 runners thanks to the support of Dr Jennifer Pugh [Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board medical officer] and IHRB," Fairyhouse's manager Peter Roe explained on Monday.

“We have various procedures in place to minimise close contacts in the parade ring.

“When we sat down and showed the protocols that could be put in place they were happy. But we had to justify how we could do it to ensure it would work.” Otherwise it will be a very different National, although one that at least goes ahead after last year was abandoned due to the pandemic.

Alternative arrangements to stage a race intrinsically linked to Easter Monday during the winter were finally abandoned last August.

Horse Racing Ireland's chief executive Brian Kavanagh said at the time it wouldn't feel right running the race in front of empty terraces.

However, with no sign of a return of spectators to sporting events any time soon that will be the case this time.

“It is the most prestigious race on the Irish National Hunt calendar. We couldn’t go another year and not have it,” said Roe

“Yes, it is the people’s race so to have it without people is unfortunate. Unfortunately we are getting use to behind-closed-doors. Hopefully though it will be the last year and let’s move on.”

Prizemoney for the big race has been cut from €500,000 to €400,000, part of the sweeping cuts made in racing’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

This Monday’s race is the first of a National glut with Aintree taking place just five days afterwards and the Scottish National run at Ayr just a week later.

That race is a possibility for the Cheltenham winner Galvin after his trainer Ian Ferguson indicated that Fairyhouse is coming too close to the festival this year.

The Irish National’s fixed Easter date, however, remains a huge plus for Fairyhouse.

“Are we a week too near Cheltenham – probably. Next year we’re a week nearer to Punchestown. But the Irish National is the centrepiece of the Easter sporting weekend, the centre of Irish sport,” Roe argued.

He described the prospect of any cross-channel runner as “unlikely” but said the proximity of both Aintree and Ayr has had no impact on the number of runners likely to line up at Fairyhouse.

Uncertainty about running plans for some of the leading National entries has led to the big-race sponsors introducing a non-runner cashback offer to those betting ante-post.

Michael O'Leary's Gigginstown Stud team has indicated it will leave a decision on whether or not Tiger Roll carries topweight at Fairyhouse or waits for Aintree's Betway Bowl until as late as possible.

The general 7-1 favourite Latest Exhibition has an alternative entry in Sunday’s Grade One feature at Fairyhouse.

Final declarations for the National will again be made on Good Friday, making it a 72-hour declaration point rather than 48.

“It’s for the Saturday and Sunday papers to have the final Grand National field. If you look in the past the number of non-runners has been very small, 72 hours or 48 hasn’t made a significant difference,” said Roe.

Ground conditions at Fairyhouse are currently yielding to soft and soft in places.

The Barry Connell owned and trained Epanito Bello is definitely being targeted at the Irish National.

A last fence blunder could have cost him victory in the Ten Up Chase last time and Connell took encouragement from the stamina he showed at Navan.

“I think he might still have won the Ten Up but for making the mistake at the last, I thought he was just getting the better of the argument at the time,” he said.

“The question going there was stamina but he stayed every yard of three miles in heavy ground, prior to that he’d only run over two-three.

“That showed that he should get the trip, though, and was the deciding factor of going down the National route.

“All his runs have been on soft or heavy ground. As long as there’s no good in the ground I think he’ll be fine, yielding will be fine.”

“Fairyhouse always do a terrific job with the ground for this meeting.

“He’s going the right way and looks to have a bright future. The novices this year look a nice bunch and he’s up there with them,” Connell added.