USA: Walsh steers Rawnaq to Grand National victory

Ruby Walsh: "I thought he was the best steeplechase horse in America"

PICTURE: Edward Whitaker (racingpost.com/photos) Walsh steers Rawnaq to Grand National victory
By James Burn 9:23PM 15 OCT 2016

Report: USA, Saturday

Far Hills: American Grand National (Grade 1 hurdle) 2m5f, 4yo+

RUBY WALSH, who has ridden more Cheltenham Festival winners than anyone and has also secured big-race glory in Japan and Australia, captured another notable prize on Saturday when partnering Rawnaq (Cyril Murphy) to victory in the American Grand National.

Connections turned to Walsh after Rawnaq's regular rider Jack Doyle was injured at Belmont Park last month and he did not let them down, guiding the former Irish-trained nine-year-old to a gutsy win from Scorpiancer in North America's most prestigious jumps race.

Sharp Rise, representing Charlie Longsdon, was third, while the Nicky Henderson-trained Days Of Heaven finished down the field.

Despite its title, the $350,000 Grade 1 resembles a hurdle race in European terms and the winner could be set for Cheltenham in March with owner Irv Naylor eyeing the World Hurdle.

Walsh, who has won bona fide Grand Nationals at Aintree, Chepstow, Ayr and Fairyhouse along with steering Bashboy to victory in the Australia version last year, was delighted to have got the opportunity, which he grabbed with both hands.

'Trip a no-brainer'

"Unfortunately, Jack got a bad fall a few weeks ago so he wasn't able to ride and I was very appreciative to get the phone call," said Walsh, having only his second ride Stateside. "The race unfolded beautifully. I got a good start and he jumped the first couple really well. It was an honest pace all the way and he outstayed them. It was a very game performance.

"In hindsight I wouldn't have committed him as early as I did – that hill was quite testing at the end – but he was in unbelievable condition and I have to thank Jack and Cyril. They told me all about the horse and I was just the lucky guy who got to steer him."

Walsh, whose bulging CV also includes two Cheltenham Gold Cups, three Champion Chases, four Champion Hurdles and five King George VI Chases as well as a Nakayama Grand Jump, added: "I thank Mr Naylor for bringing me over – it's brilliant to be here.

"I didn't need to be asked twice. I thought he was a really good ride and I thought he was the best steeplechase horse in America and looking at the two British horses I felt Rawnaq would be able to run to a better level than them. It was a no-brainer [to come over] and it's a huge purse – I don't know any other jumps race this weekend worth this much money, so I'm glad I had the opportunity to ride and was always going to come."

Murphy, who won the race with ex-Henderson import Dawalan 12 months ago, was full of praise for the visiting jockey.

"All I said to Ruby is do what you do best and he did," the trainer reflected. "There were no instructions – I can't tell him what to do and I'm not going to improve what he's already accomplished .

"We were very optimistic coming here today."

Cheltenham challenge

Rawnaq's victory in the Grade 1 Calvin Houghland Iroquois Hurdle in Nashville in May – when he had the Willie Mullins pair Shaneshill and Nichols Canyon (ridden by Walsh) behind – makes him eligible for a $500,000 bonus if he wins this season's World Hurdle, something firmly at the top of his camp's agenda.

"We'll start concentrating on that a little more now today has come and gone," added Murphy.

"Irv is pretty definite that's where we're going. We're realistic about what to expect when we get there, but we have a horse who deserves his shot."

Coral and William Hill make the son of Azamour a 33-1 for the stayers' championship.

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