6 April 2003

A trainer’s perfect planning and a stylish and faultless ride combine to land a massive gamble for the Irish bingo hall millionaire

Masterpieces come in many moulds. Don’t ever doubt that the Grand National win of Monty’s Pass was one of their number. A horse prepared with absolute perfection for this day of days, a ride of peerless authority and, glory of glories, an almost million-pound winning punt from his owners.

The plan had been hatched after Monty’s Pass and jockey Barry Geraghty finished second over the Grand National fences in last year’s Topham Trophy. He would campaign on through the Irish summer and then holiday before returning with just a couple of warm-ups to tackle the National itself.

Mike Futter, leader of the syndicate of owners, made his money in bingo halls, but this was a lot stronger than “housey, housey”. This was money down at all rates from 66-1, and down among a mere 15-strong string in rural Conna, County Cork, this was training with a capital `T’.

In the parade, 40 horses filed past us under a sweltering spring sun. Jockeys’ goggles already down, The Bunny Boiler already sweating fit for his name, 40 stories but only one to be woven into the Grand National story.

Would it be the favourite Shotgun Willy with his strange high-lifting back-leg stringhalt that struck? Would it be the huge Chives, one of three runners for Aintree devotee Trevor Hemmings? Would the hatchet-faced Tony McCoy finally add the National to his unique list of honours?

Forty horses, 40 jockeys, just 10 minutes for it all to unravel.

Poor old The Bunny Boiler went at the very first fence. The equally unlikely Bramblehill Duke went at the second, Wonder Weasel was claimed by the next but then only Polar Champ (at the eighth) was taken before the huge pack came towards those of us crouched beside the massive Chair, right in front of the stands.

Almost all the stories were intact. Tremallt had been the leader jumping in a way nobody would have believed in the clottish mistakes of his youth. But now Gunner Welburn was in front, bearing down on the big rail guarding the gaping ditch in front of the fence. Gunner Welburn and jockey Barry Fenton approached the big fence oozing the confidence of a pair with 14 Grand National fences put easily behind him. But the Chair is different. As he got to it, `Gunner’ suddenly lost belief. He lost all momentum. We ran to the other side. He had somehow scrambled over but as usual the Chair had taken its toll. Mick Fitzgerald, Katarino’s rider lay hurting. Another dream in ruins.

But the Monty’s Pass vision was still very much on plan. “He was always moving easily,” said Geraghty, “my one moment had come early at the second open ditch. I saw a long stride and really fired him in. He did not come up but was clever as a fox as he took another stride and fiddled over. After that, I just left it to him. It is so easy when a horse is travelling and knows what he is doing.”

It was a characteristic piece of modesty from the 26-year-old from County Meath, who is enjoying an Annus Mirabilis of his own, having notched up five winners to be leading rider at the Cheltenham Festival.

At 5ft 10in, Geraghty is a tall and rangy pilot who rides easy and angled above his horses. It is usually simple to pick up his distinctive style. As Monty’s Pass began to stalk the re-energised Gunner Welburn towards Becher’s Brook, the Canal Turn and the long haul home, the Geraghty profile was the one to watch.

It had become an odd National in that the fancied horses, the most predicted stories, were clearly not going to happen. Very early on you could see that Chives was struggling to adapt to the unique demands of the Aintree fences – he was to be pulled up before the 12th. Goguenard fell and was fatally injured at the 19th to continue the Hemmings hoodoo.

Iris Bleu and Youlneverwalkalone were both pulled up before the 16th, both needing the vets to scramble to their aid.

Gunner Welburn led Monty’s Pass, Montifault and Amberleigh House clear of the rest. Only these four could be the Grand National story. Very soon Montifault was out of it. Gunner Welburn was in charge – it would be a huge achievement for family Balding – Amberleigh House was closing, Ginger McCain was yet again taking Grand National headlines. But look at the Geraghty angles on Monty’s Pass. Yes, this was the one.

There was a loose horse in front. It was The Bunny Boiler, still playing his part. “I was glad to have him there,” said Geraghty. “I was going so well but I needed a lead. I wanted to keep up his concentration.” The jockey’s hooded blue eyes had a faraway look as he remembered it. “I was going so well. He just kept on galloping.”

As he came past us at the elbow of the run-in, Monty’s Pass was straining but the rest were just a galloping ribbon in his wake. The blue colours of Supreme Glory came flashing up to claim second. Amberleigh House added to the McCain honours in third, Gunner Welburn stuck on to be fourth, Montifault was fifth and last year’s winner, Bindaree, sixth of just 14 finishers. The Grand National had once again shown that it is racing’s highest mountain.

Afterwards, Futter was enviably open about his good fortune. “I started backing him at 66-1 two weeks before the weights came out,” he said. “The biggest bet I had was one of £10,000 at 50-1. I will need to buy a few presents and pay out some money to the other syndicate members, but I reckon I have cleared about £800,000. I always say I like to see the whites of the bookies eyes.”

The syndicate all come from a village called Donaghadee, in County Down, but it is back to Conna in County Cork that Monty’s Pass will be returning. Jimmy Mangan has a lot of white hair for a 46-year-old, but there is wisdom in it and the pleasure in him and his wife Mary, who led their horse up yesterday, was wonderful to behold.

“We bought him as a four-year-old,” said Mary, as she took Monty’s Pass back to the welcoming buckets of water after the race of his life. “He was a bit of a lad: he would drop you over his shoulder but he was always a wonderful jumper. He has kept improving and after he ran so well here last year, the National was the plan. Jimmy stopped training him in September. He had his shoes off and went out in the field during the day. He came back in on Jan 1, had just two runs over hurdles in March, and when the sun came out we really thought he was right.”

He was. Down in County Cork, that’s how the Monty’s Pass masterpiece was made.

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