Dynamic duo land another major prize as Duke lords it in Irish National

With maiden victories in the Irish Gold Cup and Cheltenham Gold Cup already safely tucked away, a remarkable season of firsts continued for Commonstown trainer Jessica Harrington and jockey Robbie Power, as Our Duke belied his inexperience to win the Boylesports Irish Grand National, and, make no mistake, did so in the style of a future Cheltenham Gold Cup horse.

Dynamic duo land another major prize as Duke lords it in Irish National

While novices have a good record in the race, it was just the well-backed 9-2 favourite’s fourth run over fences, and history was against him as he made his bid to become the first horse since Commanche Court, in 2000, to carry more than 11 stone to victory in the race. That winner, also then a seven-year-old, went on to finish second to Best Mate in the 2002 Cheltenham Gold Cup.

It was a fascinating race to watch. Last year’s winner, Rogue Angel, set out to make the running, but as they raced away from the stands, a group of three – Fletcher’s Flyer, Stellar Notion and the eventual winner – began to up the tempo.

With eight fences left to jump, they had moved clear of the field, which led to the inevitable question of whether that they had begun racing too soon or not. And those concerns looked well-founded when, first, Fletchers Flyer, a winner over a longer trip at last season’s Punchestown Festival, and then Stellar Notion, began to tread water as they turned for home.

How much more could the novice have left as last year’s runner-up, Bless The Wings, Abolitionist and Haymount all loomed large on the turn for home?

Remarkably, Our Duke was still full of running, and this stamina-laden seven-year-old pulled right away over the last two fences to win by 14 lengths, with Bless The Wings the bridesmaid once more, Abolitionist in third, and former winner Thunder And Roses in fourth.

“Unbelievable, I can hardly believe it myself,” exclaimed Harrington. “I may look calm, but I’m shaking inside.

“It’s hard to comprehend winning the Gold Cup and the Irish National. It’s taken me a long time to get the hang of training these staying chasers. These are all firsts for me, it’s quite good for an old 70-year-old.

“He’s a novice, that’s only his fourth run over fences, and it just went like copybook the whole way. Robbie was convinced he would stay, and I was sure he would stay, my only worry was the ground, and he absolutely loved it.

“I’m delighted for (owners) the Coopers. They bred him, they own him, and they refused a lot of money for him this year. They are fantastic.”

The decision not to travel to Cheltenham with the Grade 1-winning novice proved a shrewd one, but next year the focus will be on getting there.

“We all have to get there, but he looks a Gold Cup horse,” added Harrington. “That’s why we didn’t go to Cheltenham this year, as we wanted to wait and go for the Gold Cup next year. We’ll keep him and Sizing John apart and see what happens.”

Of the winning rider, Harrington added: “Robbie rode his first ever winner for me. We get on very well. I give out to him if he does something wrong, but he doesn’t do much wrong these days.”

Harrington is the first trainer to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup and Irish Grand National in the same season since Jim Dreaper in 1975 (Ten Up in Gold Cup, Brown Lad in Irish Grand National), while Power emulated Jim Culloty, who won the 2003 Gold Cup on Best Mate and the same year’s Irish National on Timbera.

Though scarcely possible, Power has had an ever more remarkable season than the winning trainer, his recent association with Alan and Ann Potts having also reaped rich reward, with three Grade 1 successes amongst four victories at Aintree.

But this was special for the 35-year-old from Moynalvey, just 20 minutes from the track.

“This means so much to me, it’s my local racecourse, and I was second in it a few years ago, so this is nice compensation,” said Power.

“He’s a hell of a good horse - he’s very, very good. He made a few novicey little mistakes, but Jessie has done some job to train this horse to win an Irish National on only his fourth start over fences.”

When quizzed about the heights this fellow could scale, he replied: “Hopefully I’ll have a tough decision to make next March, but who knows? We’ll enjoy this one first.”

Our Duke is no bigger than 14-1 for next year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Former winner Thunder And Roses, who finished fourth, was the first of Gigginstown House’s 13 runners, though trainer Gordon Elliott gave his title bid a boost with runner-up Bless The Wings picking up almost €100,000 for filling that spot for the second consecutive year.

Said Elliott: “He deserves to win one. He has been placed in three Cheltenham Festivals, and two Irish Nationals - he’s a great horse.”

Barry Geraghty’s season came to a premature end when he suffered a broken arm in his fall from Minella Foru, one which is likely to keep him on the sidelines for up to three months.

It’s taken me a long time to get the hang of training these staying chasers. These are all firsts for me, it’s quite good for an old 70-year-old

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