Sweet Liberty at Irish Grand National
ON a bitterly cold day at Fairyhouse, the unconsidered mare Liberty Counsel dug deep to add to the romantic legacy of the Ladbrokes Irish Grand National by claiming a shock 50-1 triumph for the humble Mullingar stable of Dot Love.
For the second year in a row, the winner of the €141,000 (£119,000) first-place prize was ridden by a journeyman conditional rider, with New Ross native Ben Dalton coaxing some spectacular leaps out of his 10-year-old partner to see off the persistent challenge of Away We Go.
The Paul Townend-ridden runner-up (25-1) briefly looked as though it would bring champion trainer Willie Mullins' hoodoo in the most valuable steeplechase in the land to an end, but the game winner would not be denied.
The 30th mare to achieve glory in the prestigious 143-year-old handicap, Liberty Counsel is the longest-priced horse ever to come home in front in the marathon three-mile-five-furlong affair.
Last year's 33-1 hero, Lion Na Bearnai, had shared that honour, so this was another popular coup for one of the game's more modest outfits.
"You mightn't think it but I'm shocked," beamed the remarkably composed Love (pictured), a Danish national who moved to Ireland over 40 years ago.
"She is such an honest horse. I thought she could run well and if she came fourth I would have been over the moon. She jumped out of her skin today – she just hacked around and enjoyed it."
Carrying a featherweight 9st 5lb courtesy of Dalton's five-pound claim, Liberty Counsel was never far off the pace.
The grey Panther Claw led out on the second circuit, but Dalton sent his mount on three-out when Katie Walsh's partner blundered.
With the drying conditions suiting the proven fast-ground performer – twice a winner of far less glamourous heats at Kilbeggan last year – the partnership sought to make the best of their way home.
Away We Go travelled strongly before joining issue at the last, but Liberty Counsel fought bravely to keep him at bay by half a length.
It was a sensational 30th career win for 21-year-old Dalton, who is based at the Curragh with Conor O'Dwyer.
"I nearly got there too early," confided the rider calmly afterwards.
"I thought Paul was going to stick it up to me at the last, but she winged it and battled the whole way.
"There are a great bunch of people involved with this horse, so it means everything to win."
Love's background is in three-day eventing, but she has earned a reputation as a shrewd handler since acquiring her licence 12 years ago.
She is always quick to heap praise on her right-hand man and amateur rider Ciaran Murphy, and the partnership is maybe best known for doing much of the breaking and pre-training for Michael O'Leary's elite Gigginstown House Stud operation.
This time, though, Love was the one in the spotlight, as she became the second woman to train the winner of this storied event following Jenny Pitman's victory with Mudahim in 1997.
To add to the suitably female theme on Ladies Day, Liberty Counsel is owned by Irene Neale and Helen Murtagh, two sisters who also hail from Mullingar.
"The owners were very nervous about running, but it was the right decision with the ground drying up," the affable Love revealed.
"With the low weight and the better ground, I felt she had a chance, so this is just fantastic.
"It's a real team effort, because Ciaran schools her and I hack her out. He has done loads of work with her, and Ben was brilliant on her today."
Sweeney Tunes fared best of the five Gigginstown runners to be fourth under Davy Russell, two-and-a-half lengths behind the Arthur Moore-trained fellow novice Home Farm. Home Farm's admirable effort was the 10th time that Moore has had a finisher in the first three in the race, while Panther Claw did well to be fifth after his error.
Katie Walsh's brother Ruby pulled up on Willie Mullins' other runner, Marasonnien.
Junior, Rich Revival and the well-backed JP McManus-owned 8-1 favourite Carlingford Lough were others to cry enough before the line.
The brave winner, in contrast, relished every inch of the test to secure a famous verdict in front of 15,125 hardy souls that braved the icy weather, a solid turnout that represented a 14 per cent increase on 2012.
The bookies' take, however, was down by the same percentage to €698,555 (£589,261).