By Chris McGrathin Trim, Co Meath
Suddenly, just as the horse was led from his stall, an icy sunset plunged beneath the melancholy afternoon sky and drenched the little stableyard in dazzling light. All that remained of Silver Birch was his silhouette, as though in token of the unreality pervading his achievements in the care of Gordon Elliott.
But there was nothing counterfeit about his role here yesterday, draped in a blanket that identified him as winner of the John Smith's Grand National. For one thing, he has already been ruled out of a return to Aintree in April by a leg problem - a reproof quite superfluous to Elliott, who was never the type to get carried away by winning the world's most famous steeplechase in his very first season as a trainer.
Instead a reality check remained the obligation of those who came here, to the banks of the Boyne, to hear the announcement of yet another prizemoney boost for the National. The purse in 2008 will be 800,000, 100,000 more than last season. It is a prodigious jackpot for a mere handicap, but one that nowadays makes the participation of the very best jumpers all but imperative.
Yet this, the latest winner, could scarcely have come from a humbler background. The stabling is breezeblock, the roofing corrugated iron. In some yards, there are engraved nameplates beside each box. Here, the names are scrawled in chalk on blackboard. Elliott has still only had six winners in Ireland, and nine in Britain. Such is the reality of the National's romance.
While his cropped hair is frosted with grey, Elliott is still only 29. In his thickening torso you can still observe the power of the crack amateur rider who rode for Martin Pipe through a decade of Cheltenham Festivals. "They're the only two lads I ever worked for," he said. "Tony Martin, and Martin Pipe. They train differently, but I suppose a mixture's working OK. I'm only young. I'm still learning. So long as I keep doing that."
Since those days, Pipe has been succeeded by his son, David, who remains a close friend and travelled over to join Elliott in his celebrations after Silver Birch's stupefying success. Even at the time, Elliott knew that people would doubt the foundations beneath the edifice he had erected so abruptly. …