The Irish Grand National was run at Fairyhouse on Monday. The Mostly Irish Grand National, meanwhile, is at Aintree on Saturday, when 27 of the 40 runners facing the starter at 5.15pm will be attempting to extend Ireland’s current stranglehold on Britain’s most famous and popular race.
One For Arthur, in 2017, was the last British-trained winner at Aintree, and Ireland’s current run of four straight victories – already a modern-day record – is long odds-on to continue, despite One For Arthur’s trainer, Lucinda Russell, fielding a likely favourite in Corach Rambler. Fifteen of the top 20 horses in the betting on Friday afternoon are trained in Ireland, and the 27-strong raiding party is also a new record, up by half a dozen from 2022, when a majority of the 40-strong field were Irish-trained for the first time.
It is a remarkable turnaround in fortunes for the Irish, both in terms of runners and the winners that predictably follow, and one that mirrors the country’s recent dominance at the Cheltenham Festival in March.
When Bobbyjo became the first Irish-trained National winner for 24 years in 1999, Tommy Carberry’s chaser was one of just two runners from Ireland among the 32 runners. When Papillon came home in front 12 months later, he was one of seven among 40, and the annual excursion from Ireland to Aintree has grown steadily ever since.
In one sense at least, it could be said that steeplechasing is coming home, as it was two Irishmen who staged the first recorded race over fences, a four-mile gallop across open fields between the steeples of two village churches in County Cork in 1752.
But Ireland’s current dominance, and the steady progress over two decades that has seen their horses become the clear majority in the Grand National, is such that it is tempting to wonder not just when, but if, the cycle will ever turn again.
As Charlie Swan, Ireland’s champion jockey over jumps for nine seasons in the 1990s, pointed out here on Friday, Ireland’s jumping horses are currently better than their British counterparts at every level of the game.
“We probably have more of those horses in Ireland than you do over here,” Swan said. “It comes around in decades, I remember that when I first went to Cheltenham [in the mid-1980s] there were no Irish winners, so it does come around.
“But Irish racing is very healthy and we’ve just got classier horses. We’ve got decent owners that are paying decent money and keeping them in Ireland. Years ago, the English owners were coming over and buying all the good horses in Ireland, it’s just the way it turns.”
“I don’t know what you do about it. The only way you can see it turning back is if a couple of the English owners invest again. That’s the only way it can happen, I’d say.”
This suggests that the issue is not so much why Ireland has so many runners in the National, but more a question of where all the British-trained chasers have gone. The answer is that they have stayed at home in Ireland, and at a time when a British-based owner as significant as Rich Ricci still sends the great majority of his horses to be trained by Willie Mullins, it is not something that is likely to change any time soon.
Success breeds success, and the tidal wave of winners trained by Mullins, Gordon Elliott, Henry de Bromhead and others at the Cheltenham Festival in recent seasons seems to have persuaded many owners that Ireland is the only place to be.
“There’s good trainers in England, but it’s very competitive in Ireland and good prize money,” Swan says. “I don’t know whether the competitiveness makes it better racing, but there’s so many races here [in Britain] that they don’t really take each other on as much, and maybe that’s a big factor as well.
“You can be watching midweek [in Britain] and there’s six or seven runners in races, or even less sometimes. In Ireland, you’re full fields for most races. So it’s hard to know what to do to rectify it, but it won’t be rectified quickly, I don’t think. It’s just gone up and up.”
Little of this matters to the Grand National’s once-a-year punters, of course. A winner is a winner wherever it is trained, and in the most difficult race of them all, backing the first horse home is one of those rare events that endears the horse, trainer and rider to its backers like few others.
All the money was coming for Irish-trained runners on Friday, as Ain’t That A Shame replaced Corach Rambler as the favourite with some bookies, with Delta Work, bidding to give Elliott a record-equalling fourth National winner, close behind.
The support for Ain’t That A Shame was owed as much to his rider as his form, as Rachael Blackmore, the first female rider to win the National when she triumphed in front of empty stands here two years ago, will be holding the reins.
The “Blackmore Effect” on the betting will be a significant factor at Aintree for as long as she continues to ride, and one certainty in Liverpool on Saturday is that there will be a packed house to greet her if she can achieve a second National win in three years. It would also be another huge PR coup for racing as a whole – something that fans on both sides of the Irish Sea would surely welcome.