“SLIPPERS’ IS SO SURE-FOOTED.

9 April 2006

Some people try for a lifetime and never win it. Twenty-year-old Niall Madden came to the National for the very first time and, if he has another 20 attempts, he will never ride the old monster quite as perfectly as he did on Numbersixvalverde to beat Hedgehunter and Clan Royal this year.

Aintree has never been, never should be, a place for the faint-hearted or slow-footed, whether on two legs or four. You have to survive the hazards which come with 40 horses galloping off towards 30 fences. You have to be both brave and careful. And you have to be cool. As young “Slippers” – his father’s nickname was “Boots” – came across the Melling Road with only two fences and Tony McCoy and Ruby Walsh ahead of him, his poise almost had icicles on it.

A huge cheer had gone up as the commentator called out “Clan Royal, Hedgehunter, Numbersixvalverde, the big three”, but it had taken a lot of drama to get that sense of inevitability into this showdown. Five horses – Innox, Tyneandthyneagain, Royal Auclair, Whispered Secret and Juveigneur – went at the first, and as little Forest Gunner, ridden by Nina Carberry, cantered wearily over the line almost 10 minutes later, he was the last of only nine horses to finish.

The pace set by Shotgun Willy, Puntal and Ballycassidy had not been that fast, but the fences and the sheer, slogging distance still took their toll. Baron Windrush went at the third, the grey Ross Comm at the fourth, Ebony Light at the fifth, Just In Debt at Bechers (sixth), Le Duc at the eighth, Silver Birch, Heros Collonges and Jack High at The Chair, Haut de Gamme at the 20th, Sir OJ at the 22nd and First Gold at the 23rd. Ballycassidy was still in front when he went at the 25th. All the other non-finishers were pulled up, their jockeys forced to put discretion ahead of valour.

Despite all this drama only Paul Carberry (sprained ankle) and Steven Craine (broken collar bone) were hurt and the calamity which ended Tyneandthyneagain’s life came when he crashed into the last open ditch when loose on the second circuit. Other than that the worst injury to a horse was to a Clan Royal, who gashed his stomach so badly when he miscalculated the 19th that Tony McCoy immediately dismounted after the winning post to allow the horse to be led away for treatment. Clan Royal was a magnificent second two years ago and run out by a loose horse last year. This performance outdid them and the cut proved only superficial.

But we knew none of this as the about-to-fall Ballycassidy led the pursuing pack with six fences to jump. What we could see was a whole kaleidoscope of Grand National stories swirling ahead. Could the amazing Ruby Walsh add a third triumph to his glittering shield? Could McCoy break what has become a National hoodoo? Could Nina Carberry produce a first female victory? Could the quirky, blinkered Inca Trail add a National to the glories his full brother Best Mate took to the grave?

All of them would have made a memory worthy of Bob Champion and Aldaniti 25 years back and Dick Francis and Devon Loch exactly half a century ago. But this time the tale was that of the young pilot in the green and black silks on Numbersixvalverde. “Slippers” had been in no hurry. He was right at the back of the field on the first circuit but now he had coasted through to look across and see only Walsh and McCoy in front of him, with the grass stretching away to the stands where the crowds began to roar.

The hot blood in your body shouts “go”. The sense in your head says “wait”. But “Slippers” won his first race as a 16-year-old and there was an old head on those young shoulders. Best of all, there was a powerful, magnificently-trained horse beneath. Going to the last McCoy was committing Clan Royal, Walsh still had a bit in hand on Hedgehunter on the far side. Now was the time. “Slippers” put his big bay partner at the obstacle and set him hard and straight up the longest, most destructive run-in racing has to offer.

Trainer Martin Brassill may only operate in a small way back home in Co Clare but the grey hairs testify to the getting of wisdom. He has had Numbersixvalverde from his first racing days. He won the Irish National with him last April. Yesterday’s outing came via mind-easing trips over hurdles in his last two runs. As the horses reached the crook of the run-in right in front of us, Walsh and Hedgehunter threw everything at Madden and Numbersixvalverde. It was not enough.

“I have tried to imagine winning this race since I was a boy but I just couldn’t,” said Brassill. “It’s magic. It was just like watching a movie out there. Niall gave him a fabulous ride – never panicked and took his time. It’s hard to believe really.” It always is. But history now shows that 2006 was the year a boy called “Slippers” awoke the world to his talent. “It was brilliant,” said Madden. “I had a dream ride all the way round. It’s just magic.”

For Co Clare-born property developer Bernard Carroll this was the culmination of more than 30 years of racehorse ownership; Numbersixvalverde is named after his holiday home in Portugal.

“When we were thinking of a name for this horse, we were lying on the beach at Valverde in Portugal and thought, why not name him after our place there?” Carroll explained. “It’s just a cheap house in Portugal. I tend to work seven days a week for four weeks and then take a week off.”

“I have been very lucky with horses and with Martin in general. I missed his Irish National win but I was never in danger of not being here today, my wife and daughters made sure of that.”A lot of coinage was spent by them in Manchester yesterday so I can use the prize money. But I couldn’t watch the race today, I get absolutely terrified.”

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