IN these strange times we’re lucky to be able to tune in on Saturday evening 7.45pm to TG4 to watch ‘The Irish Grand National – Chasing a Dream’. It’s as close as we’re going to get to what was to have been the 150th anniversary of Ireland’s premier steeplechase.
Forty years ago Easter Monday fell on 7 April. The diary – in reality a work book – records the build-up over the previous, somewhat tense seven days. Tuesday, 1 April was declaration day for Fairyhouse, six days hence. That done, we boxed four up to the Black Lion to gallop over 11 furlongs. Peter Daly rode Daletta, as he invariably did. John McNichol rode Ballymoney, Jerry Cosgrave was on Mucky Duck and the trainer on Scorching Day. All bar Mucky Duck worked well. Forget about sending her to Navan tomorrow.
On Wednesday Daletta, Maam Cross, Country Rose and Jeremique hacked four figures of eight in Hanlons. Jack Lowry came that evening to shoe Daletta, racing plates in front, light iron, with cocks, behind. Turned out to graze, Daletta managed to pull off a front plate. Jack Lowry, to his eternal credit, came back the 20-odd miles to refit the plate. No mobile phones back then.
Navan, having raced the day before, kindly let us in for Daletta’s final school over fences on the Thursday. John Harty rode Daletta, jumping seven fences to John’s satisfaction. Simaroon, with the trainer on board, was so slow over the first four, the only way to keep pace with Daletta was to gallop abreast, but on the flat. Even Daletta showed his surprise at this amateurish carry-on.
Good Friday saw Peter walk Daletta on the grass before schooling Scorching Day over hurdles in preparation for his run in the Fingal Hurdle at Fairyhouse on the Tuesday. No, it did not come naturally to this flat-bred animal.
Happily, Scorching Day redeemed himself on Easter Saturday when Tom Lacy let us have a final gallop on his training grounds in Rhode. We led Peter on Daletta for half a mile and then fought back when headed. Everyone happy!
A hot Easter Sunday began with walking exercise for Daletta, Ballymoney, Maam Cross and Scorching Day. The afternoon was spent at the Westmeath point-to-point in Castletowngeoghegan, represented by The Big Lad.
Maybe the fast going didn’t suit this lumbering slowcoach, despite Jerry Cosgrave’s urgings. They kept plugging on to finish fifth. Hard to believe that TBL and Daletta could both be classified as thoroughbreds.
An equally sunny Easter Monday began with Daletta (Peter Daly) and Scorching Day (trainer up) doing a pipe-opener before breakfast, a race-day practice that Peter had learned while working for Paddy Mullins. While there Peter had ridden 13 winners. He was thus still eligible to ride in those races confined to jockeys who had yet to ride 15 winners. Two subsequent successes on Maam Cross at Wexford owed a lot to that precious qualification.
Little was said over breakfast in Manor Lodge. The racing tipsters gave us scant encouragement. Time to borrow Pat Joe Kelly’s big Fiat, hitch up, load up and set forth for Fairyhouse. Daletta had the Rice double trailer to himself, whereas the Fiat had to accommodate the trainer, his wife and eldest daughter, Peter and Jerry. We were overtaken by the Heaslip brothers, Michael and Danno, hopeful of success in the opener with For Auction, their future Champion Hurdle hero. Their hopes were realised. Could we be so lucky?
On arrival we were greeted with the news that top-weight Tied Cottage was a non-runner, as were Little Abbey and The Bronx. While the latter pair simply meant two less to worry about, the defection of Tied Cottage at the eleventh hour meant that the weights would not go up.
Daletta would still carry 11st 4lb, not 12st. The difference was to prove crucial. The betting market had it between two English raiders, Jer and Good Prospect and Tarquestral, the mount of leading amateur Ted Walsh. Freddie Watson, whose wife Isobel owned Daletta, helped himself at 10-to-1.
John Harty, mindful that Daletta was being asked to go a mile further than he had ever been, told us not to expect to see him feature over the first couple of miles. True to his word, he was plumb last with a circuit to travel. Sneaking into contention from Ballyhack, John had only Eggnog to beat when Tarquestral fell two out. That he did with a length to spare. Forty years? Could’ve been yesterday!