Category: Archive

Golden age

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Nine horses finished the race, all with Irish jockeys on board. Four of the nine are trained in Ireland with another two under the quiet hand of Jonjo O’Neill, an Irishman abroad. Indeed, but for O’Neill’s Clan Royal getting the judges? nod on the photo for third place, there would have been an Irish 1-2-3, just like in the Cheltenham Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle last month. You could argue that with an Irish trainer in O’Neill, an Irish jockey in Tony McCoy and an Irish owner in JP McManus, about the only English in Clan Royal is the grass he eats at Jackdaw’s Castle but to claim him would only be being greedy. No need for that when the riches are so plentiful as this.
And maybe the best part of it all is that it isn’t just the big boats that are floating on the rising tide. Brassil is a soft-spoken, polite Clareman who, this time last year, only had 12 horses under his care. When Numbersixvalverde won last year’s Irish Grand National for him, it was the little flash of neon he needed to attract passing trade. Within a couple of short months, he’d doubled his stock. The luxury of it all.
An indication of how off-Broadway Brassil was working, however, is the fact that with the increased numbers came an unbearable pressure on space in his yard. His attitude was that if an owner was going to put business his way, he was certainly never going to hang the “No Vacancies” sign in the window. But he simply didn’t have the room to house the increased numbers. And so it has come to pass that the trainer of one of the world?s greatest races has had to cadge stable space from a neighbour of his, Ger O’Leary. Some stories just write themselves, don’t they?
The race itself was a joy. Hedgehunter, defending his title and aiming to be the first horse since Red Rum over 30 year ago to do so successfully, gave as brave an effort as you could wish to see. Had the race taken place on Thursday or Friday, he’d almost certainly have won. As it was, the combination of overnight rain that left the going as officially soft and the top weight of 11-stone-12 was just too much for him to bear.
“This is heart-breaking,” his jockey Ruby Walsh lamented afterwards. “This is way worse than coming second in the Gold Cup. My head says that I shouldn’t be too down in the mouth but, being totally honest about it, my heart is in the arse of my breeches just now. I was fairly sure three fences out that it wasn’t going to happen. Myself and A.P. McCoy were talking to each other the whole way around and when my horse, Clan Royal, and Numbersixvalverde got to the last, the race was in the balance. But I missed it, Slippers flew it and I turned to McCoy and said, ‘The danger’s on the outside — it isn’t me.’ He was agreeing with me.”
Walsh and McCoy may have known it but the rest of us mortals were hard pushed to pick a winner as the three horses jumped that third last fence in stereo. Hedgehunter had had a relatively clear round up to then but he made this one a little more untidy looking than it needed to be and it soon became evident that Clan Royal wasn’t much longer for staying in contention either. But even so, there and then with the three of them in the air, the race was deliciously poised.
On and on Numbersixvalverde — named after the address of his owner’s Portuguese villa, by the by — galloped, the race his pretty much as soon as he jumped the last. Hedgehunter tried — boy, did he try — but the 18 pounds he was giving away told in the end.
Walsh fought to hide his disappointment afterwards and lost. But he was genuinely delighted for Madden, a close friend of his and a rider in whose story he can find much to recognize. This is Madden’s first year as a professional jockey and, just like Walsh did six years ago on Papillon, he has won the Grand National at his first attempt at the age of 20. Known to all as Slippers on account of his father — also Niall — being called Boots, he was almost too stunned to put his feelings into words after the race. “Magic. Just magic,” was about the best he could do.
That it was — and is — for all who were there, for all who watched, for all working within and looking on from without, a golden age in Irish racing. Magic. Just magic.

North frozen out
of League semis
The knockout stages of the National Football League are upon us and for the first time in as long as anyone can remember, there’s something missing. Now, what could it be? The sun’s here, present and correct, a nice bit of weather to welcome the months of spring. And the annual congress is just around the corner, the cutlery being shined below in Killarney as we speak. So what is it?
Well — and this is going to be hard to believe for all you poor, put-upon Southerners out there – it’s the Ulstermen, stupid. That’s right. League semi-finals bereft of Northern accents. Kerry against Laois and Mayo against Galway. Clear and present dangers of football matches breaking out all over the place. No Tyrone, whose draw with Mayo condemned them to be pipped by Kerry. No Armagh, whose one-point win over Wexford preserved their Division One status by a whisker. No Down (thumped by Galway), no Derry (mugged by Meath), no Monaghan (relegated by a late Cork goal).
So what does it all mean? Something and nothing, probably. Tyrone and Armagh remain two of the big three and both Derry and Down are strictly to be avoided come the summer. But there’s a fair possibility that beyond those four, the province isn’t as strong as it was. Donegal made promotion from Division Two but they will, as ever, be governed by what mood takes them when the sun’s out.
With Laois and Dublin making Leinster look respectable again, Mayo, Galway and Roscommon all in advancing stages of quiet revolutions of their own and Kerry, Cork and Limerick nobody’s mugs down South, there’s every reason to look forward to a more democratic championship than might have been expected at the turn of the year.

Woods tells joke,
Feherty tells world
You folks over there hardly need someone from back here telling you of the loss to Irish sport David Feherty was when he went West as a relatively young man to seek fame and fortune as a golf commentator. And you certainly don’t need a quote-starved hack such as myself complaining that there just aren’t any characters around here any more to liven up what – let’s face it — can be some pretty banal copy at times. But a loss he was and complain we do, all the more so when word filters home of his latest decent gag.
This one came courtesy of an unexpected source: the heretofore apparently humorless Tiger Woods. Feherty — maybe in an attempt to make Woods seem more human, maybe in a horrid name-dropping exercise designed to show how cool a double act he and Tiger would make or maybe just because it’s a funny line — told the story last week of a joke Tiger told him. “What do you call a black guy flying a plane?” he asked Feherty. “Dunno,” said Bangor’s finest.”A pilot, you f**king racist,” came the reply.
Which, you’ve got to hand it to him, is pretty funny for someone usually so afraid of offending anyone that even self-deprecation is dangerous territory. Whether he’d be exactly overjoyed at Feherty letting the rest of the world in on the fact that he’d momentarily turned into Chris Rock is another matter. Although, given that IMG have stage-managed his career down to the position of every last logo, it wouldn’t be the shock of the century if it were to emerge that Feherty’s flash of insight into Woods’s sense of humor was less off-the-cuff than perhaps it seemed.

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