Training an Irish Grand National winner is a tremendous achievement in itself. But to win the big race with an 150-1 outsider and join your father on the roll of honour is the plot of a fairytale.
This was the story of Dermot McLoughlin and Freewheelin Dylan, who was written off before the famous staying contest in April – despite already being a ‘National’ winner having taken the Midlands version of the race at Kilbeggan the previous summer.
A handful of well-beaten runs over both hurdles and fences followed, after which he was given a 69-day break before his big-race engagement.
The Kilbeggan victory came on good to yielding ground, leaving Freewheelin Dylan’s outsider status to look increasingly dubious when the Fairyhouse turf was declared yielding and he was able to employ his preferred front-running tactics.
“He’s a horse that wants the top of the ground, he’s a horse that suits that time of the year from April onwards,” McLoughlin said.
“He won the Midlands National in July and he likes the sun on his back. I said to one of the lads on the way to the races that with the shape he was in, he had to have a good chance if he could get away.
“When he’s ridden handy like that he really enjoys it, that’s how he won the Midlands. We didn’t initially think we would be able to make the running as Gigginstown like all theirs to be ridden handily too, but over the first he got his head in front, he just seemed to jump from fence to fence and enjoy it.
“The ground was real, proper good going and he really enjoys that ground, he thrives on it.”
The bay took to the head of the field over the first fence and was the leader from there on in, jumping impressively and travelling like a far more fancied horse than the 150-1 outsider.
At the third fence from home the chasing pack did push forward to attempt to take the lead from McLoughlin’s horse, but he responded to jockey Ricky Doyle’s urgings and stayed resolutely on to cross the line a length and a quarter ahead of Denise Foster’s Run Wild Fred.
“When he was still in front at the second- or third-last, I said to one of the lads here ‘we better dash out’ and he kept going well, he got us to the line and it was great to see, especially at my local track as well,” said McLoughlin, whose runners could almost hack to Fairyhouse as their yard is only five miles away.
“Ricky Doyle came in and said to me that he’d have been happy to go round again, the horse was going so well within himself and just pricking his ears into every fence.”
The victory was made all the sweeter by McLoughlin’s family history in the race, with his father Liam the winning jockey in 1962 when partnering Tom Dreaper’s Kerforo to success.
“My rather rode the winner of it in 1962 so it’s just one of those races,” McLoughlin explained.
“I was up there the other week and we were both up on the board and I thought “‘Jesus, there it is, now it’s gone down in history’.
“We’re only ten years training and I’ve always said it was one we’d like to have a go at but A, you need a horse good enough and B, you need a lot of luck like in any National.
“He just fits the bill and to be honest, it all came right for him on the day with the ground conditions and him getting his head in front at the right time.”
Freewheelin Dylan’s triumph bears all the hallmarks of the against-the-odds underdog stories that make Grand National races on either side of the Irish Sea so compelling, but both countries were still in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic at the time which robbed a famous victory of the crowd it deserved.
“With the atmosphere on the day, there was nobody there, none of my family or friends,” said McLoughlin.
“It was empty stands, it was a bit surreal with covid as they pulled it all back and there was nobody up there, the owner wasn’t even there. It was a bit isolated but in fairness to Fairyhouse, they made it the best they could and it’s down in history no matter what happens.”
Though Freewheelin Dylan ran the race of his life thus far in front of an empty grandstand and without the presence of owner Sheila Mangan, Fairyhouse ensured the moment did not go unmarked and invited connections to parade their champion before crowds at the Hatton’s Grace meeting last month.
“That’s the only thing we missed about it, the owner has missed two Nationals,” said McLoughlin.
“She works here at the yard does Sheila, and she missed the Midlands National and the Irish National.
“In fairness Fairyhouse brought us up there for the Hatton’s Grace meeting and she brought 10 of her friends, they let the horse parade before the Hatton’s Grace and they pulled it up live on the television. It was a big crowd and big roar so that was great.”
A large-odds winner means a large pay out for those shrewd or lucky enough to have selected him as their National bet, and McLoughlin has been moved by the messages of support and congratulations he has received since enjoying the Fairyhouse success.
“Oh Jesus, yes!” he said when asked if he had heard from Freewheelin Dylan’s fan base.
“Someone rang the other day and their son was called Dylan and he was sick, they just wanted to know if they could bring him and I said ‘you can bring anyone you like. No problem. Anyone who wants to can come in’.
“There’s been plenty of people here for weeks and weeks. It was at the wrong time with the virus, but people would come after to have their pictures taken with him and many people rang me and sent me letters and good wishes.
“I really appreciate all of it, you need these nice horses, especially in Ireland as it is the crème de la crème here at the moment.
“It’s quite difficult in Ireland so it was great, I have a picture of him at the back door and every evening I come in and it’s great to see it.”
Having conquered the Irish National there is now a trip to Aintree in the works for the gelding, who is aimed squarely at the Grand National in April next year in a bid to carry off the famous double previously achieved by National heroes such as Rhyme ‘n’ Reason, Bobbyjo and Numbersixvalverde.
He was last seen unshipping Doyle in the cross-country chase at Cheltenham in November, but horse and jockey are none the worse and may be reunited with a run over hurdles in December before the preparations for Aintree begin in earnest.
“On his mark he’ll get into the English National so we’re just playing cat and mouse to get to Aintree,” McLoughlin said.
“There might be a hurdle race for him over Christmas, the fourth or fifth of January at Fairyhouse, we might give him a run there if the ground doesn’t get too testing.
“He’s not a winter horse and he wouldn’t want very testing ground so there’s no need to be running him in it.
“He’ll go there hopefully, for the sake of a run, and he’ll probably get a break before he comes back into training.
“He takes no training really, he’s the type of horse that doesn’t take much work to get fit so he’s straightforward to train in that sense.
“That’s the plan anyway, that was always the plan from last Easter so we’ll give that a crack.
“He’s going to be top weight in all the Irish handicaps so there’s no point in asking him to carry plenty of weight in bad ground.
“We’re working back from Aintree, we’ll give him one more run and a break. He’s in fine form now anyway, he’s really in great nick.”