His mount, Conrad, had refused at the obstacle, Becher was thrown head over heels into the ditch on the other side and was now watching as the field of the inaugural Aintree Grand National of 1839 passed by. His only prize that day was to have his name associated eternally with that filthy ditch and Becher’s Brook remains the most celebrated fence in horse racing history.
The good Captain was a member of the Wrixon-Becher family from the Barony of Duhallow in North-West Cork and although far from being the most capable horseman connected with an area dripping with steeplechase history, his fall into that brook has earned him a lion’s share of the attention. But by 5.30 this afternoon this may have changed utterly.
Twenty-one-year-old jockey David Noonan, another emigrant son of the Barony, makes his first appearance in that same Aintree race when he takes the ride on Ballynagour for his boss, David Pipe.
While his horse is an outsider in the betting you don’t have to probe too deeply to find that his chances are far from remote.
Noonan rode his 75th career winner at Sedgefield last week, the milestone total that transitions a conditional jockey to a fully-fledged professional.
This is a critical juncture in his development but he speaks with the determined focus of a young man who is unafraid of the challenges that lie ahead, including the four-and-a-half-mile white-knuckle adventure he faces later today.
“This season I have claimed 3lbs and numerically it’s been very good,” he says. “I’ve had over 350 rides, and 33 winners, I’ve continued to keep the contacts I’ve had from previous years and even made a few more. But I’m happy that the people I’ve built rides with will continue to use me, because a lot of times 3lbs is neither here nor there.”
The Noonan family home is in the village of Kilbrin, halfway between Kanturk and Buttevant and coincidentally built on lands once owned by the Becher family. David’s passion for horses grew from the local pony club and was nourished by many visits to local point meetings with his father, Ger. “When I was about 12 or so I started going down to Eoin O’Grady’s yard just down the road,” he continues.
“That was my first real taste of a racing yard, going in and helping out. Of course, I played a bit of hurling and football with the local club, Croke Rovers, but my real love was always horses.”
He spent the summer before his Leaving Cert working in Pipe’s Pond House stable and made a good impression because once his exams were out of the way he returned to a full-time job and the chance to ride initially as an amateur. Within a year he had ridden his first winner for the yard, Purple and Gold at Kempton, and in the three years since his success accelerated to the point that he is already a full professional with a National ride.
He is keenly appreciative of the backing he gets from Pipe. “David has been really supportive, giving me mornings off which allows me to ride out at other yards and the freedom to make contacts. He has never tried just to keep me in house.”
The admiration is mutual. Pipe remarked last week that “David is a very accomplished rider as well as a very professional and courteous young man – the next few months will be very important for him as he tries to consolidate his position by winning without his claim.”
So, does he think he has a real chance to displace Captain Becher in the Duhallow Hall of Fame later today?
“Well I know his last three runs don’t looked great,” he says, “but form is temporary and class is permanent. On his day he is a very high class horse, probably just short of top standard.
He won at Cheltenham three years ago and after that was just beaten a head in a Grade-One race at Aintree so this is his time of year. When the ground improves I do feel he comes to himself, when the weather picks up and spring is in the air. He was starting to pick up last year until he unluckily unseated on the second circuit.”
He’s sure that his quiet, relaxed riding style will suit Ballynagour and if he avoids accidents he could hunt down the leaders and run into a respectable finishing position.
To do this he may have to risk the jealousy of an old neighbour’s ghost as glides over fences six and twenty-two. By the end of today in the ancient Barony ‘Noonan’s National’ may be threatening Becher’s Brook’s as the most iconic tale in Duhallow’s racing folklore.