THE omens are good if Goonyella is to win the Crabbie’s Grand National for Ireland and the Dreaper family, who remain synonymous with Arkle, the greatest steeplechaser in history.
After all, Sue and Harvey Smith’s hero Auroras Encore was an agonising second in the Scottish National at Ayr – just like Goonyella 12 months ago – before conquering Aintree the following year in spectacular style.
And Tom Dreaper, assistant trainer to his father Jim and grandson of Arkle’s trainer Tom, is hopeful that history can repeat itself. His reasons are two-fold. Goonyella’s seemingly nerveless jockey Jonathan Burke, admired by all, is one of the best young riders of his generation and the National is still steeplechasing’s greatest stamina test.
His only worry, however, is whether the frenetic early place will be too much for Goonyella who caught the eye when winning the Midlands National at Uttoxeter in March last year before putting up a career-best effort at Ayr after just failing to make the 40-runner cut for Aintree last April.
However, the horse confirmed his wellbeing when nearly defying top weight to win last month’s Leinster National at Naas.
“It’s no secret that the first two miles of a National are more important than the second two,” said Dreaper, who was a popular conditional rider when attached to Ferdy Murphy’s yard in West Witton.
“During my time in Yorkshire, I was very friendly with Graham Lee who won on Amberleigh House in 2004, Ginger McCain told him to hunt round and pick up the pieces from there and it fell into place. Now one mistake early on can cost you 10 lengths and you’re very quickly out of it. The race has changed.”
Dreaper also notes how the quality of the National field has changed. In his grandfather’s era, horses like Arkle – who won the last of his three Gold Cups 50 years ago – would never have been considered for Aintree. “Back in those days, it was very much the poor relation to Cheltenham,” he added. “The National was an after-thought. Now you need a Gold Cup-type horse.”