When the 33/1 shot Silver Birch held on to beat the strong finishing Mckelvey (12/1) by three-quarters of a length in the 2007 Grand National the celebrations in the winners’ enclosure were extraordinary. His young rookie trainer, Gordon Elliott, was ecstatic. So were the bookies.
Silver Birch had taken the lead under Robbie Power at the last and badly needed the line. Mckelvey, trained by Peter Bowen and ridden by Tom O’Brien, got the better of the third placed Slim Pickings (33/1) by two lengths with an effort that left him pulling up lame.
Philson Run, a 100/1 outsider in the Grand National betting saddled by the ex-accountant Nick Williams, crossed the line 15 lengths further back in fourth. The French-bred mare Liberthine (40/1), owned by Robert Waley-Cohen and ridden by his son Sam, finished fifth for his trainer, Nicky Henderson.
The first five all carried less than 10 stone 9lb. The 2006 National winner, Numbersixvalverde (14/1), finished a distant sixth shouldering 11 stone 3lb – 9lb more than the previous year.
A triumph for a rookie trainer
The County Meath based Elliott had every reason to be pleased with the win. He had only been training for a year and had so far failed to score at home in Ireland with his handful of horses. He had saddled just four winners, all of them in Britain. Aged 29 he became the youngest trainer to send out a National winner.
Elliott was not exactly born into the saddle either. His father was a mechanic. It was his uncle who had a point-to-pointer with Tony Martin. When he was just 13, Elliott started helping out at Martin’s yard and was soon hooked by the racing game.
He became a very successful amateur jockey, scoring in countless point-to-points in Ireland. An ongoing battle with the scales speeded his progression to the training side. He worked for the master-trainer Martin Pipe for several years.
Elliott obviously picked up plenty whilst he was there. After Silver Birch’s win Pipe described him as ‘a fantastic guy’ and seemed genuinely pleased for him.
A nightmare for Nicholls
Elliott’s achievement left some well-established, outstanding trainers such as Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson scratching their heads. Neither had claimed Aintree’s ultimate prize at the time after countless attempts.
Silver Birch had previously been an inmate at Nicholls’ Ditcheat yard. He had won the Becher Chase and Welsh National for him in 2004. The son of Clearly Bust was the ante-post favourite for the 2005 National but suffered a career threatening injury weeks before the race.
Silver Birch was not seen on a racecourse for 13 months after his Welsh National win and he didn’t seem to be the same horse when he reappeared. Having finished fourth in a handicap hurdle, he pulled up in his next two runs. Blinkers were tried to no effect.
He was a 40/1 shot when Nicholls finally saddled him for the 2006 National only to see him fall at the Chair. A month later Silver Birch was sold for a mere £20K at Doncaster Bloodstock Sales. The sale had been prompted by veterinary advice.
Elliott advised Brian Walsh to buy the horse even though he knew a bit about his tendon problems. Pipe’s yard in Somerset was not far from Nicholls’. Walsh said that Silver Birch looked great at the sales but was actually ‘in a right old state’ and lame.
Undeterred, Elliott instigated some innovative tendon treatment and put the horse on box rest for a month. When it seemed to work he embarked on a careful and unconventional National preparation. It included hunting and a spin round a point-to-point before tackling some cross country chases. Having repaired the bodywork he managed to refresh his charge’s mindset too.
A useful spare ride for Power
Elliott had wanted his good friend Jason Maguire to ride Silver Birch in the National. Maguire had partnered the horse twice in cross country races for him at Cheltenham, most recently at the Festival a month ago. They finished second with many more fancied horses behind them.
As stable jockey to Donald McCain, Maguire had to relinquish the ride as he was obliged to partner Idle Talk (20/1) for his boss on the day.
It was the 25-year-old Robbie Power, son of the Irish international showjumper Con Power, who got the call from Elliott. He had ridden in the National once before and finished unplaced. He had only ridden Silver Birch once before too – in a cross country race at Punchestown in February. They finished second.
Power, a popular character in the weighing room known as ‘Puppy Power’, was typically self-effacing after the win. He described it as ‘unbelievable’. He also said it didn’t mean that he was a better jockey than when he woke up in the morning and praised Elliott for picking the horse ‘up for nothing’.
What happened in the race?
It seemed to take forever for the field to get away after a false start. Cloudy Bays (100/1) had caused it and was very slow to realise that the race was actually on, losing over 10 lengths.
The Irish National winner and 8/1 co-favourite Point Barrow was towards the rear when he rapidly relieved the bookies of substantial liabilities in the Grand National betting. He capsized under Philip Carberry (brother of Paul and son of Tommy) at the first. The 125/1 outsider Tikram was racing prominently when he blundered and deposited Wayne Hutchinson at the same obstacle.
The Outlier (125/1) was the trailblazer until Bechers first time. It was Naunton Brook (125/1) who took the lead, showcasing the superb jumping technique that had enabled him to remain upright in all his starts over fences. Jack High (33/1) was unable to emulate him and fell at the rear of the field. Nor was Nicholls’ Le Duc (66/1) who unseated Dominic Elsworth. Livingstonebramble (100/1) also misjudged things and parted company with Davy Russell.
The Philip Hobbs-trained Monkerhostin (8/1), who had stayed on well to take fourth in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, was the subject of a monumental gamble on the day. He was available at around 20/1 early in the morning but was sent off as the 8/1 co-favourite in the Grand National odds.
Unaware of the amount of money riding on him, Monkerhostin was clearly unimpressed with Aintree and obviously hadn’t enjoyed the experience of jumping Bechers. He was out the back when he ignored Richard Johnson’s urgings and refused at the next, the relatively small Foinavon fence. Hobbs’ other runner Zabenz (66/1) was deliberately pulled up before it by Barry Fenton after suffering a tack malfunction.
At the Canal Turn Kandjar D’Allier (100/1) was hampered by a couple of loose horses and fell, ending Choc Thornton’s hopes. Knowhere (100/1) made a mistake that unshipped Tom Doyle. Nicholls’ Royal Auclair (33/1) was not far off the pace when he hit the deck at the following fence, Valentines.
Silver Birch and Simon 20/1 emerged from the midfield to take more prominent positions at the 12th. L’Ami (14/1), ridden by the champion jockey AP McCoy and Hedgehunter (9/1) partnered by his good friend and rival, Ruby Walsh also moved up at the same time. Sam Waley-Cohen had been close to the pace since Bechers on Liberthine. Further back in the field, Cloudy Bays decided to call it a day at the Chair and refused.
Meanwhile Naunton Brook had got into a good rhythm at the front but started to weaken approaching the 17th, allowing Ballycassidy (33/1) to take the lead briefly before Bewleys Berry (22/1) relieved him of it. Idle Talk unseated the unfortunate Maguire at the 19th. The Outlier also blundered at the fence and lost his jockey. Billyvoddan (16/1) was not asked to tackle it and was pulled up by Leighton Aspell.
The sole surviving co-favourite, Joes Edge (8/1), trained by Ferdy Murphy had never got into the race. He appeared to be lame when he was pulled up by Graham Lee before the 20th fence.
Bewleys Berry led the field over Bechers second time where he fell, hampering Ballycassidy. Graphic Approach (100/1) also went but got up and galloped away, causing chaos running loose, hospitalising some spectators and suffering concussion himself. Robbie Power survived Silver Birch’s peck on landing. Eurotrek (16/1) was pulled up before the fence as was Celtic Son (50/1) and Homer Wells (33/1). Slim Pickings had moved through the field into a prominent position under Barry Geraghty.
Liberthine was left in the lead with Simon behind him in second place. Simon clouted the next (Foinavon) and fell at Valentines, hampering Numbersixvalverde and Philson Run. Ballycassidy got rid of Denis O’Regan with a serious mistake at the second Canal Turn.
Whilst many surviving runners ran out of fuel and pulled up, Slim Pickings took the lead from Liberthine at the 26th. McKelvey was now chasing the leaders but it was Silver Birch who took the lead at the last and held on to it.
Elliott and his many friends were seen drinking champagne out of pint glasses after the win. The bookies were celebrating too. One firm reported a record-breaking Grand National profit.