Southerner Kina Win is in for the fight as he ranges alongside Upper Cut over the last but the topweight proved too tough in the run to the line.
Self-deprecation may not be part of Mark Oulaghan’s vocabulary, but once again it characterised his reaction to cementing his name in Grand National Steeplechase history with his sixth win in the iconic race at Riccarton today.
When Upper Cut and Shaun Phelan crossed the line first in the Racecourse Hotel & Motor Lodge-sponsored marathon, Oulaghan sealed his position as the dominant trainer in Grand National history. Upper Cut’s win 12 months ago set a training record of five wins in a sequence that began with Deecee Seven 20 years ago.
That horse won again in 1998, Counter Punch scored a double in 2010-11 and now with what could be only be described as amazing symmetry, Upper Cut has chimed in with his own back-to-back double.
Yet despite that extraordinary level of success in one of our most stamina-sapping races, Oulaghan still professed to lacking confidence that Upper Cut could do the job again today.
“I was a little bit apprehensive if he had enough miles on the clock,” the Awapuni horseman said. “He got a virus earlier in the winter and that set us back a bit, then he missed a run in the Wellington Hurdles and I thought I was playing catch-up.
“Having to carry topweight in this ground didn’t do much for my confidence either, then when I saw my jockey lying on the track in that hurdle race earlier today I was starting to wonder.”
Oulaghan need not have worried. Riding to instructions, Phelan settled back in the field while up front his stablemate Paddy Owen shared pacemaking duties with the horse that had dominated pre-race discussions, The Big Opal.
Favourite punters would have been feeling happy with themselves when The Big Opal wrested the lead back off Paddy Owen with 800 metres to run, but all the time Upper Cut was sneaking runs up the inside.
At the carriage paddock, with 400 of the 5600 metres remaining, Upper Cut’s challenge was ominous, jumping the second-last abreast with The Big Opal on his outside. The favourite had run his race by then, but the result was anything but sealed.
As Upper Cut stayed on in the run to the last, southerner Kina Win chimed in and was up for the fight as he and Upper Cut jumped the last almost on terms. Upper Cut was undeniable, however, digging deep despite carrying four kilograms more than the challenger and going on to score by a length and a quarter.
Tai Ho ran the race of his life to finish third nine and half lengths away, followed in by Chocolate Fish and The Big Opal.
In brilliant sunshine that contrasted starkly with last year’s quagmire, the 2017 Grand National Steeplechase was a mighty contest with all the best elements that set jumps racing apart from anything else.
It might be old hat to Oulaghan and his ilk, but the pride in seeing a horse such as Upper Cut excel is ageless.
“He’s just a brave, genuine horse,” said Oulaghan. “Being by Yamanin Vital (also the sire of Counter Punch and countless others) is a big part of it. They just seem to find stamina that other horses can’t.
“When that other horse got up alongside at the last fence I thought the weight might start to tell on my bloke, but no, he wouldn’t have it.”
Amongst those gathered to pay their compliments to Oulaghan, Phelan and the horse himself was part-owner Michael Ormsby, who was also a part-owner Counter Punch.
“Mark and I bought both these horses,” he said. “It’s just been wonderful for all of us lucky enough to own them, but the bloke I’m most pleased for is Mark, he’s an absolute genius at getting a horse fit.”
Oulaghan, never one to collect compliments, paid his own to Phelan for the ride and to his stable employee Lisa Davison, who took care of the Oulaghan horses during their National week stay at Riccarton while he commuted between Palmerston North and Christchurch.
“Lisa’s done a fantastic job, she deserves a lot of the credit. It was good to be told after this horse’s final work that he was fit and ready. I guess she was right!”
Today’s win was something in the way of redemption for Phelan, the winner of the 2014 Grand National on Eric The Viking but enjoying nothing of the same luck in more recent times. His worst time was when he suffered multiple injuries in a fall at Trentham last winter, serious enough to make him consider his riding future.
“With a broken shoulder and ribs and a punctured lung I was in pretty bad shape, but I’m glad to be back winning a big one,” Phelan said. “Mr Oulaghan told me to stick to the inside, the shortest way is the fastest way home.
“I didn’t leave the rail and the horse did the rest – brilliant!”