Dawalan aims for major comeback in Grand National

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Forgive Cyril Murphy if he doesn’t get ahead of himself. Don’t hold it against him if he takes it day by day. Or even minute by minute. You see, Murphy is a horse trainer and he’s been here before.

“We did well enough to get to a nomination, then we did well enough to get an entry on Monday and well enough again to get through scratch time today,” Murphy said Wednesday afternoon while discussing his Grand National entrant Dawalan. Owned by Irv Naylor, the 2015 steeplechase champion is one of nine in the $450,000 race which headlines Saturday’s record-setting Far Hills Races in New Jersey.

A win by the gray 8-year-old might push Tiger Woods for sports comeback story of the year – if American steeplechasing and PGA Tour golf had similar fan bases anyway.

Dawalan won the 2015 Grand National and Colonial Cup to land the Eclipse Award as champion steeplechaser, but didn’t run in 2016 after injuring a tendon in a flat prep. Brought back for the Iroquois in May 2017, he reinjured the tendon by striking it with a rear hoof while jumping. The horse hasn’t race since and, though he’s progressed through every step of his preparation, Murphy won’t breathe easily until post time Saturday.


“He came back into exercise the beginning of July and we’ve just been day-by-day, training away and if everything goes all right we go to the next day,” said Murphy, third in the 2018 trainer standings with eight wins. “We’ve been quietly stepping it up ever so slightly and he hasn’t disappointed us.”

Dawalan would disappoint only the most jaded of people.

Bred in France by the Aga Khan, he is a half-brother to international turf stars Daylami (North America’s champion male turf horse of 1999) and Dalakhani (Europe’s Horse of the Year in 2003), but didn’t pan out as a flat horse with trainer Alain De Royer-Dupre. Dawalan managed to finish second twice, and wound up a sales prospect – like many colts bred by the Aga Khan’s Studs – late in his 3-year-old year. With English trainer Nicky Henderson, Dawalan won two of his first three hurdle starts and added two more victories in December 2014 and February 2015. Purchased by Naylor and Murphy, the son of Azamour started three times in the fall of 2015 – placing third in the Lonesome Glory at Belmont Park, winning by a length in the Grand National and dominating the Colonial Cup.

Prepping for a title defense in 2016, he finished third on the flat at Green Spring Valley Point-to-Point, wound up with a tendon injury and missed the whole season. Murphy got him back for the 2017 Iroquois, but Dawalan struck into himself with an awkward jump in the Grade 1 and was pulled up with another injury. And another long layoff.

Dawalan underwent ACell Therapy where regenerative cells are injected into the injured tendon to promote healing and reduce scar tissue. Limited, progressive exercise becomes part of the rehabilitation and Dawalan did much of his on a water treadmill at Nor Mar Farm in Freeland, Md. After nearly a year there, he returned to Murphy in May for six weeks of turnout.

“We just let him be a horse for a while and mentally that helped him,” Murphy said. “We let him be himself after being in that aquatred program and away from home for so long.”

Dawalan started back in work in July with other members of the stable pointing for fall campaigns – and it’s been one day at a time since.

“He can be a little moody when he feels like he’s being asked to do more than he wants and he’s told us he’s been happy doing what we’ve asked him to do,” said Murphy, who paid special thanks to riders Darren Nagle and Graham Watters with helping in the prep work. “He’s happy training, getting plenty out of it each day and the right signs suggest we can get there. He’s got a chance, and if the cards don’t fall right, at least we got there.”

Dawalan didn’t get a prep race. He wasn’t quite ready for the Lonesome Glory and the training flat races at the early meets this fall didn’t work out in terms of scheduling, course condition or location. Murphy’s champion did show up at the trials at Shawan Downs Sept. 30, and worked a stiff mile-and-a-quarter with maiden hurdler Hooded (called a “very, very good work horse” by Murphy).

Murphy said Dawalan’s ability, age and previous performance suggest taking a flier on the latest comeback. He won his Eclipse Award as a 5-year-old, in brilliant fashion. Seven of Saturday’s nine starters are ages 8 and older. His 2015 Grand National win was a crowning achievement for Murphy, Naylor and the team, which produced back-to-back Eclipse winners when Rawnaq grabbed the title in 2016.

To be back, with a chance, is special. To win would be doubly so.

“It would be nice,” said Murphy. “It would be a hell of a training feat for all of us on the farm. It takes a lot of us and it would be right up there with everything else we’ve achieved so far.”

While discussing his horse, Murphy brought up fellow trainer Ricky Hendriks. A week ago he trained Grand National favorite Zanjabeel, who came up with a tendon and will miss the race (and probably spend a year on the sidelines). Murphy understands. He’s been there.

“That was hugely disappointing to read about that,” Murphy said. “When he was going to Belmont for a prep race (in the Lonesome Glory Sept. 20) and he was as impressive as he was there, it was going to be a matter of trying to pick up the crumbs he left on Saturday.

“Everybody goes through it at some point. You just pick yourself up and look to the future and hope you get the chance again.”

Can Dawalan win?
Sure he can. Will it be easy? Not even close. He hasn’t run in 17 months. He hasn’t finished in a race in a month shy of three years. But his chances improved when Zanjabeel went to the sidelines. Dawalan’s best race is probably better than anyone else’s, but he might need it.

Morning-line maker Bill Gallo made Jury Duty the 2-1 favorite for Irish connections Sideways Syndicate and trainer Gordon Elliott. The field includes other foreign raiders Hammersly Lake (3-1) and Jaleo (15-1) from England, and Tornado Watch (20-1) from Ireland. Elliott also runs Clarcam, who makes his third American start of 2018. The 10-time winner is 6-1 on the early line.

American-based Days Of Heaven and Hinterland (each 10-1) represent leading trainer Jack Fisher and get company from All The Way Jose (10-1) from trainer Jonathan Sheppard. Dawalan is 8-1 and will be ridden for the first time in a race by Nagle.

“He rides out here every morning so he knows him well enough now,” Murphy said of Nagle, the 2017 champion who is second behind Jack Doyle this year. “The horse will travel wherever he’s comfortable.”

NOTES: Far Hills offers an American steeplechase record $900,000 in total purses . . . Full pari-mutuel wagering will be offered . . . Far Hills and the New York Racing Association will team up on a Pick Four wager involving the fifth (Foxbrook Novice Hurdle) and sixth (Grand National) races at Far Hills and the ninth (Empire Distaff) and 10th (Empire Classic) at Blemont Park Saturday. 

Far Hills entries.

Far Hills Races website.

More on Dawalan’s background at the Aga Khan’s Studs.