By Michael Tanner
It’s long been held that come the spring a young man’s fancy turns to love. But at the appearance of the first daffodils Irishmen are overcome by a fancy more fever than love: Cheltenham and Aintree.
As many fortunes have been won and lost as the number of Irish horses who’ve crossed the ‘water’ to raid the twin jewels in the National Hunt calendar. The greater prize was always the Grand National which offered the biggest pot of gold and the juiciest betting market. “The English and the Irish nags are ready for the fray, Sir,” went one 19th century ditty, “and which may lose and which may win, ‘tis very hard to say, Sir.”
Indeed, it may be claimed that the very first Grand National fell to an Irish raider because the race won by Mathew in 1847 was the first run under that name – its precursors being run as the Grand Liverpool Steeple Chase and the Liverpool and National Steeple Chase.
The 1840s witnessed dreadful years of famine in Ireland. One million died. Twice that number emigrated. And, it was joked, millions more would’ve joined them had Mathew not landed the colossal wagers riding on him in 1847.
The nine-year-old gelding, owned and trained by John Courtenay of Ballyedmond, County Cork, was one of several fancied Irish participants, headed by the slashing black mare Brunette, the darling of Irish race-goers. But she was getting old and Mathew was receiving stacks of weight, a boon during a four-mile ten-minute slog encompassing ploughed fields and 30 semi-natural obstacles, some little more than hurdles but others featuring banks and drops – and even a stone wall.
Mathew was no Stubbs painting: his mealy brown colour gave him ‘a somewhat mean look’ according to the sport’s trade paper. But he did possess that ‘bold, confident eye’ which ultimately became synonymous with great Aintree performers. Moreover, the Press drew further encouragement from a report that a lady ‘in the mesmeric state’ declared she’d seen Mathew victorious in her sleep.