Duke success transforms Irish National landscape

The Irish Grand National had been in decline for a number of years, but one’s faith in Ireland’s premier National Hunt race was renewed by a scintillating display from Our Duke at Fairyhouse on Monday.

Duke success transforms Irish National landscape

Those of us old enough to remember the likes of Arkle, Flyingbolt and Brown Lad have watched, if not exactly in horror, but certainly with disappointment, as the race gradually went down hill.

What it had developed into was a battle between numerous average enough horses for a lot of money, with Monday’s offering shaping as the same old story, for even more money.

Years ago, Arkle, Flyingbolt and Brown Lad were forced to concede buckets of weight in the top handicaps, because they literally had nowhere else to go.

But the game has undergone massive changes and there are far more options now and no need for trainers to campaign their horses the way the late Tom Dreaper and, indeed, his son, Jim, were forced to.

Tom Dreaper, of course, trained both Arkle and Flyingbolt and they put up huge weight-carrying performances in the Irish National.

Arkle won under 12st in 1964 and Flyingbolt humped an unbelievable 12st 7lbs when winning in 1966.

They were iconic horses, in the care of a legend, with Dreaper Snr adding so much to the folklore of the National by winning seven times in a row between 1960 and 1966.

Brown Lad won the race on three occasions in the 70s for Jim Dreaper, scoring first off 10st 5lbs and then twice with 12st 2lbs on his back.

There have been many other very good winners, such as Tied Cottage, Bobbyjo, Desert Orchid, who made light of 12st in 1990, Commanche Court and Numbersixvalverde.

But the race has been on the slide for a number of years and so on Monday we stifled a final yawn and settled down to view proceedings, with little or no expectation.

But in just over seven minutes and 42 seconds the Irish Grand National landscape was transformed by a horse who produced a brilliant exhibition of jumping, allied to limitless stamina, that had class written all over it.

In retrospect, the handicapper’s assessment of 153 for the seven-year-old was miles wide of the mark, but geniuses are a dime a dozen after the fact.

Logically, you would have thought the handicapper had done Our Duke few favours, considering the horse was having only a fourth outing over fences and rated just 15lbs shy of Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Sizing John.

And it wasn’t as if Our Duke was bringing irresistible form over flights to the table either.

He was a useful hurdler, undoubtedly, but still only managed a single success, taking a maiden at Leopardstown.

Our Duke won a single bumper as well, but that is worth more than a backward glance. He scored by 21 lengths, on his debut at Punchestown in November of 2015, but you’d imagine wasn’t pulling up any trees at home, on the basis he was returned at 16-1 when beating seven opponents.

What he did at Fairyhouse had to be seen to be believed, for such a young horse, who was so low on experience.

He won by 14 lengths, under the steadier of 11st 4lbs, and it could have been even more had Robbie Power so wished.

The handicapper this week raised him by 14lbs, which now sees Our Duke within 1lb of Sizing John, quite extraordinary.

Harrington, who celebrated her 70th birthday in February, has every reason to be especially excited regarding her latest star.

He revelled in the good ground at Fairyhouse and all surfaces seem to come the same to him.

Our Duke simply needs to be lucky going forward to line up for the Cheltenham Gold Cup in March with very realistic prospects.

When Sutton Place was a late withdrawal from a Grade Two hurdle at Fairyhouse on Monday it was most revealing.

He is trained by Gordon Elliott, who is now virtually assured of a first trainers’ championship, after Bless The Wings added €95,000 to his considerable pot when taking second in the Irish National.

Sutton Place’s race, however, was prior to the National and a first prize of over €41,000 was particularly significant at that stage.

But Elliott pushed such considerations to one side and withdrew Sutton Place, refusing to risk him on the drying ground.

The money then went to Renneti, trained by Elliott’s great rival, Willie Mullins.

Third first time out over hurdles at Navan, Sutton Place followed by winning his bumper at Fairyhouse, before landing four in a row over flights.

All the indications are that he has the potential to be a champion, over fences, but, subject to the ground, perhaps he might turn up at Punchestown next week.

At Fairyhouse on Sunday the booking of Ruby Walsh seemed an obvious positive for the Tony Martin-trained Artful Artist in a rather competitive 22-runner handicap hurdle.

The market, however, told us that another of Martin’s, Babanango, was the more likely and he went off the 5/1 favourite, with Artful Artist rather uneasy, returned at 7-1 and available at bigger on the exchanges.

Babanango ran like a donkey, finishing 19th, with Artful Artist doing his best work at the end to claim seventh.

Artful Artist was coming back from a break of 111 days and, if he cannot land a handicap off a modest horse’s rating of 106, sooner rather than later, then I will take up knitting!

Iknow he was only beating trees, but there was some swagger to Gordon Elliott’s Samcro, who kept his unbeaten record when landing a third bumper at Fairyhouse on Monday.

He was less than impressive previously, when scrambling home at Navan in December, but, given a break of 120 days, stripped an altogether different proposition five days ago.

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