Donn McClean: Lion can roar
Our Irish expert Donn McClean previews the raiding party heading over to Aintree for the Crabbie's Grand National meeting.
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It has been a while. Silver Birch seems like a good while ago now, although admittedly not as long as it must have seemed between the time that Tommy Carberry rode L'Escargot to victory and the time that his son Paul dismounted via the Aintree rafters from Bobbyjo.
Those intervening years (23 of them in total, 22 if you don't count the 1993 non-starter) were bleak ones for Irish-trained horses. Greasepaint and Colin Magnier went agonisingly close against Corbiere, and Lastofthebrownies was a perennial placer, but we had got to a point at which we didn't really expect to win the Grand National, and at which the number of people who could truly remember the previous one was declining.
Then the Carberrys won it with Bobbyjo and the Walshes won it the following year with Papillon, and suddenly every half-decent staying chaser in the country was a potential National winner.
Those were good National times. Silver Birch was the sixth Irish-trained winner in nine years, and if you had said then that there wouldn't be another one for at least another seven, it would have been difficult to believe. There have been plenty of near things, like Black Apalachi and Oscar Time, so you can't think that there isn't another National in us some time soon.
It's easy to say so now, of course, but the best chance of an Irish-trained winner this season - at least according to the market - lay with On His Own, until he went and demanded a place in the Gold Cup line up instead (not as well). His Wylie/Willie combination is still well-represented by Prince De Beauchene, mind you, who at least looks likely to make the line-up this year. That is progression. He has a good profile for the race too.
Double Seven is younger than ideal, but he is progressive, he won five on the bounce from June to October last year, and he beat the Kim Muir winner Spring Heeled in the Munster National in the middle of all that. He is trained by Numbersixvalverde's trainer Martin Brassil, so you know that he will not lack for preparation, and it looks like he will be ridden by AP McCoy, so you know that he will not lack for strength or guile from the saddle.
Raz De Maree represents Black Apalachi's trainer Dessie Hughes, and he is a Cork National winner, a stayer, who is feasibly handicapped on a mark that is just 6lb higher than his Cork National mark. Big Shu is also a player. Winner of the Cross-Country Chase at Cheltenham and the La Touche Cup at Punchestown last year, ran well to finish third in the Cross-Country this year, the race in which Silver Birch was beaten before he won the National in 2007.
In truth, you could make a case of sorts for most of the 11 Irish horses who look set to run, but the best value among them may lie in the 33/1 that Sky Bet are offering about Lion Na Bearnai. (It means fill in the gaps, by they way; it has nothing to with roaring or pride or the Serengeti.) Tom Gibney's horse is no stranger to springing surprises. He was a 50/1 shot when he won the Grade 2 Ten Up Chase at Navan in February 2012, and he was a 33/1 shot when he won the Irish Grand National a month and a half later.
"In truth, you could make a case of sorts for most of the 11 Irish horses who look set to run, but the best value among them may lie in the 33/1 that Sky Bet are offering about Lion Na Bearnai."
Donn on the National
He ran just twice last season, in the Hennessy at Newbury and in the Scottish National at Ayr, and he was pulled up on both occasions, but his trainer's small team was out of sorts last season. They are in much better form this term.
On his penultimate run, fitted with cheekpieces for the first time, Lion Na Bearnai won a two-mile-five-and-a-half-furlong chase at Fairyhouse, beating the useful pair Competitive Edge and Shrapnel by four lengths and a neck. We know that he has stamina - his Irish National win told us that - but that run showed that he still retained plenty of pace even as a 12-year-old.
His most recent run, when a well-beaten fourth behind On His Own and Mount Benbulben in the Bobbjo Chase, was a little disappointing at the time, but he travelled into the race well, and he was there with a chance at the fourth last fence before the classier horses quickened away from him. And the first two home are decidedly classy, especially when they are going right-handed on soft ground, and one of them, of course, almost won a Gold Cup three weeks later.
It is difficult to see how Lion Na Bearnai was allotted a handicap rating of 147, given that he is rated 140 in Ireland and, on the two occasions on which he raced in Britain, off marks of 148 and 147 respectively, he was pulled up. Even so, there are enough factors in his favour to allow for his inflated handicap rating at similarly inflated odds of 40/1 or 33/1.
You can be certain that Gibney has had the Grand National as his primary objective all season, and it would be surprising if that run in the Bobbyjo did not bring him forward. Significantly, Davy Russell, who rode him for the first time in the Bobbyjo, remains loyal, and the Gold Cup-winning rider is an obvious positive.
The Grand National appears to be more about galloping and staying now than it ever was, and, possibly as a consequence, the older horses seem to be more apt to come to the fore than before. Five of the first six horses home last year were 11 or 12; five of the first seven horses home in 2012 were 10 or older; the first six home in 2011 were all aged in double-figures; seven of the first eight horses home in 2010 were 10 or older. The fact that Lion Na Bearnai is 12 may be an asset on Saturday as opposed to a liability.
On Thursday, First Lieutenant may give Dynaste a real race in the Betfred Bowl. David Pipe's horse is a worthy favourite, he looked really good in winning the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham, and he won the Mildmay Novices' Chase over this course and distance last year after getting beaten in the Jewson Chase at Cheltenham.
However, First Lieutenant is also a winner over course and distance, having won this race last year. Remarkably for one so talented, that is the Gigginstown House horse's sole Grade 1 victory over fences to date.
He is probably at his best going left-handed on goodish ground and, while there is rain around Aintree, it will not be as soft as it was at Leopardstown or at Down Royal in the depths of winter. Also, Mouse Morris' horse is a spring horse, three of the best four runs of his life have been in March or April, and the fact that he missed Cheltenham means that he goes to Aintree fresher than most.
On Friday, it could be worthwhile giving Don Cossack another chance in the Mildmay Novices' Chase. The Gordon Elliott-trained gelding fell at the sixth last fence when travelling well in the RSA Chase at Cheltenham the last time we saw him.
Of course, it was too far out to venture with even a modicum of conviction how he might have fared, but he had been doing everything right up to that point, he had jumped and travelled well, but he just seemed to get a little crowded at the sixth last.
On the positive side, it means that he did not have a hard race at Cheltenham, and, as long as he is none the worse for that fall, that gives him a chance against the wholly likeable RSA Chase winner O'Faolains Boy. Only one RSA Chase winner has followed up here since Monsieur Le Cure won both races in 1994.
Don Cossack is a high-class novice chaser who has always been held in high regard by connections. He handles soft ground well, but he put up one of the best performances of his life when he won the Drinmore Chase at Fairyhouse last December on good ground. He could go close in this, and he might be a little under-rated by the market on Friday.