Reports01 April 2024

'I had huge confidence in the horse' - Thomas Gibney hails Irish National winner Intense Raffles as the best he's had

Intense Raffles gets a post-race kiss from JJ Slevin
Intense Raffles gets a post-race kiss from JJ SlevinCredit: Getty Images

Intense Raffles defied youth, a hefty weight and a shuddering error at a crucial juncture to run out a courageous winner of a riveting BoyleSports Irish Grand National, giving both jockey JJ Slevin and trainer Tom Gibney their second success in Ireland's richest jumps race.

Carrying the double-green silks of Simon Munir and Isaac Souede, Intense Raffles was only the third six-year-old to win the race since the turn of the millennium, in front of a surprisingly big crowd of 16,758. He also carried the highest weight to victory since Our Duke in 2017. Before that, you have to go back to Commanche Court in 2000, who also carried 11st 4lb to victory.

It was a hugely popular result for the Meath-based Gibney, who saddled Lion Na Bearnai to cause a 33-1 shock in the race in 2012 under Andrew Thornton when he had just five horses in training. 

Unlike Gibney's winner 12 years ago, punters were acutely aware of the prospects of Intense Raffles as he went off a well-backed 13-2 shot after two hugely impressive chase wins at the track earlier in the year following his transfer from Patrice Quinton's yard in France.

Intense Raffles and Any Second Now battle in the closing stages of the Irish Grand National
Intense Raffles (left) and Any Second Now battle in the closing stages of the Irish Grand NationalCredit: Getty Images

"It's fantastic," said Gibney. "I have to say I had huge confidence in the horse and people were asking me was I nervous, but I wasn't because we had such confidence in him – he's the best I've had. He's only six, so who knows where he'll go."

Slevin, who has cultivated a fruitful partnership with the owners through his association with Stuart Crawford, was parachuted in for the ride after Daryl Jacob was ruled out due to a broken collarbone, and made no mistake in landing his second Irish National after steering the Gordon Elliott-trained General Principle to victory in 2018. 

After being positioned handily throughout, he began to loom up on the front-running Frontal Assault's outside at the fourth-last, but he clouted it hard, which caused him to screw in the air, losing what looked like vital momentum.

However, Slevin regathered his mount and got back up alongside the long-time leader. As he began to poke his grey head into the lead after the penultimate fence, Minella Cocooner and the evergreen Any Second Now began to launch potent challenges. 

Thomas Gibney
Tom Gibney in the Faiyhouse winner's enclosureCredit: Getty Images

He looked a sitting duck for the closers after he landed over the last with little momentum, but Slevin galvanised him and he pulled out extra to fend off Any Second Now by a length and a half with Minella Cocooner another two and a half lengths back in third.

"It's magic," said Slevin. "Tom said he thought he'd win and he was right. I never thought those sort of things [winning two Irish Nationals] would happen to me."

Slevin suffered a particularly unlucky unseat at the 16th fence in last month's Gold Cup on Fastorslow and there was a strong tinge of internal redemption in the winning jockey's reaction.

"I fell off a horse in the Gold Cup a few weeks ago and I let a lot of people down. I hit the fourth-last a right belt and I thought that might have knocked the stuffing out of him. He was long at the last, but he's big and scopey and galloped out to the line."

The winner was Gibney's first horse for powerhouse owners Munir and Souede and he was quick to express his gratitude to the duo for electing to give his smaller operation a big chance.

"Last February was the first time I spoke to Simon and Isaac," he said. "Fair play to them, it's very easy for the big owners to go to the big yards, so for them to pick out a small stable like us and give us a horse, kudos to them, that takes a bit of doing. It's great to be able to repay them."

A delighted JJ Slevin poses for the cameras after Intense Raffles landed the Irish Grand National
A delighted JJ Slevin poses for the cameras after Intense Raffles landed the Irish Grand NationalCredit: Getty Images

"It was a dream to win it in 2012. It was so different to today as there was so much more expectation and pressure. It's a small, local team and the staff and my family are brilliant. I'm a Meath man, so to get it here is amazing; to win it twice is surreal."

Ted Walsh was naturally enormously proud of the lionhearted runner-up, who will go down as one of the unluckiest National horses in recent times, having finished third and second in the Aintree National and now runner-up in the Irish equivalent.

"I'm proud as punch of him, just like I was when he was second and third at Aintree," he said. "It was a huge run, he ran his heart and soul out."

Finishing positions:

2024 Irish Grand National result: where your horse finished and who won 

Read more:

'I enjoyed that!' - delight for Olly Murphy as Brewin'upastorm gives him a first Irish win in Grade 2 

Drama for punters as 1.01 in-running shot chinned on the line in action-packed opener at Fairyhouse

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