15 April 2007
High summer for the winter game: the blazing sunshine might have been more Ascot than Aintree, but the long, desperate duel as Silver Birch held off Slim Pickings and McKelvey up that stretching run-in was the authentic Grand National in the raw. As ever it was a battle that rewards the winner with history.
Hard, hard Robbie Power drove; deep, deep Silver Birch stretched, but behind him Tom O’Brien, another even younger Irishman asked another and younger horse to chase. Nine minutes earlier both of them were merely hopefuls as the 40-strong field pushed and plunged at the starting line.
But nine minutes of action at Aintree can shatter the framework of predictions like a herd of cattle crashing through a campsite. Power and O’Brien had steered a course through two circuits of galloping bedlam. And it had come to this.
Until now Power, aged 25, has been better known as son of the Irish show-jumping legend Con Power, but this crowning of four successful years as a professional jockey has given him a legend of his own.
O’Brien, 20, has the famous connection of Aidan O’Brien, the prolific Flat trainer, as an uncle and this season is in the process of setting a record for a conditional jump jockey in Britain. But as this National drew to its climax, the only thing he wanted was to pass the horse in front.
The fact that this showdown was not the script that the world expected only reinforces the Grand National’s strength. This is a place, a challenge, an experience like no other. Acres of newsprint can be used in predictions, but it does not take long to shred them. The much-fancied Point Barrow had never fallen in an already distinguished career. Yesterday he went at the first.
Out on the track the spectacle daunts, thrills and baffles in turn. We stood down at the Chair Fence watching the big screen. Naunton Brook was making the running, Bewleys Berry was attacking his fences with great élan, Ballycassidy was up there, just like last April.
They came up and winged the Chair as only thoroughbreds can and as they set out on the second circuit, we began to wait for the big hitters to surge. We were to wait in vain.
True, Hedgehunter was still stalking the leaders along with Numbersixvalverde, but as Bewleys Berry took over on the run down to Bechers the main drama was the riderless grey Kandjar D’Allier, who had fallen at the Canal Turn and now threatened to wipe out the leaders as he took the fences beside them.
It wasn’t his fault that Bewleys Berry capsized at Bechers but this National now took on the impossible dream when the young amateur Sam Waley-Cohen took up the running as Liberthine swung left at the canal and headed for home.
We had to start accepting that things might not develop in the way that pundits had predicted. Some had hung a bit on Simon, but he went out at the 25th and as the field came back towards the Melling Road we began to believe in stranger things: 33-1 shots Slim Pickings and Silver Birch were up there with Liberthine and close behind was Philson Run, a 100-1 chance.
But the unexpected is the National’s trademark. Liberthine and her amateur partner Waley-Cohen were still battling in there, as Barry Geraghty had Slim Pickings ahead of Silver Birch at the second- last. It now looked between these two, but O’Brien and the well-backed McKelvey were on a roll to become the first Welsh -trained winner in more than a hundred years. Unexpected perhaps, but unexciting? Never.
Up the run-in Silver Birch took over from Slim Pickings and headed towards us at the dog-leg by the Chair.
As he came past he was three lengths to the good, but digging deep, so deep that Power would get himself a whip ban. Both Slim Pickings and McKelvey were clawing back his lead, but all O’Brien’s strivings looked unlikely to crack what was to be the youngest National team’s dream.
Both Silver Birch’s owner Brian Walsh and trainer Gordon Elliot are in their twenties. County Meath-based Elliot began training only last year and his only winners had been in England last summer. But he had primed his horse. Now he was only yards from immortality.
Silver Birch had won round these fences two seasons ago for Paul Nicholls, but a disappointing time last year had the master trainer putting him on the transfer list. The 20,000 guineas that stud manager Walsh paid for him could be one of the bargains of the century. But he had to hang on first. O’Brien was driving and McKelvey was closing, but hanging out a little to the right. “I heard the commentator say another horse was coming,” said Power afterwards, “but I just kept going.” In the shadow of the post McKelvey made one last heroic lunge to get within three-quarters of a length of the winner. So heroic that he pulled up so lame that he had to stand with the vets rather than walk back to the runner-up’s welcome. Even half an hour later poor O’Brien was almost too “gutted” to speak.
But then that is so often the way at the Grand National banquet. To the winner the glory but to the one who got so close, a sense of grasping “might have been” too deep for words. Yesterday it was Robbie Power and Tom O’Brien who drained their cups to the end.