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Frances keeps Houlahan flag flying at Warrnambool

Frances Houlahan became the third member of her family to train a winner of the $120,000 Grand Annual Steeplechase (5500m) at Warrnambool when Sampan Man was victorious in the marathon feature today.

Frances Houlahan became the third member of her family to train a winner of the $120,000 Grand Annual Steeplechase (5500m) at Warrnambool when Sampan Man was victorious in the marathon feature today.

Houlahan is the daughter of legendary jumps trainer Jim Houlahan who has won four Grand Annuals, while her brother Mark trained So And So to win the race in 1978.

Sampan Man, a seven-year-old gelding by At Talaq, is leased by Houlahan and her husband Brian Johnston.

But when the horse first arrived at her Mornington stables from Bega she almost sent him back to the owner.

"He was only 15.2 hands but he had a good head and shoulder and I thought he's here now so we might as well give him a go," Houlahan said.

The gelding's first big test came in a Yarra Glen point-to-point and she said she would have sacked him if he didn't win.

A lot of planning went into winning the Grand Annual with Sampan Man who won a steeple at Warrnambool in September 2001 before going out for a spell.

Last year he finished third in the race behind Hibernian Prince and Crafty Dancer.

"He came into work the same day and we followed the same plan as last year and luckily he got in with a nice weight," Houlahan said.

Sampan Man gave cross-country jockey Adrian Garraway his first Grand Annual success.

Garraway had the `chaser handy to the leaders throughout in fourth or fifth spot and after racing to the front after the Tozer Road double the last time around he kicked clear and was never headed, scoring by 3-1/4 lengths from Sovereign Ties with topweight and race favourite Crafty Dancer two lengths away third.

Brett Scott, rider of the John Wheeler-trained Crafty Dancer, couldn't believe his eyes when Toughen Up, who had lost his rider earlier in the race, charged across the face of the field after jumping the Tozer Road double, missing his mount by centimetres.

"I could see it coming but I couldn't do anything about it," Scott said.

That incident cost Crafty Dancer valuable ground and probably cost him his chance of winning the race.

Veteran trainer Houlahan was a proud man after his daughter won the prized event.

"I got more out of this than any of my wins," he said.

"She can read horses better than anyone I know."

Fran Houlahan said winning the Grand Annual meant a lot to her.

"It's not a race to be ho-hum about, you can't beat tradition," she said.

"He (Sampan Man) settled beautifully, he's an experienced horse and Adrian is an experienced rider."

Houlahan has had success in other big jumps races in the past including a Hiskens Steeple with Suede Boy in 1981 and an Australian Steeple, but said it had been some years since her last big win.

Among the horses to fail to complete the course were Rowdy Ralph, who lost his rider Paul Graesser during the first lap, Toughen Up, Delete Me Not and Intensive Care who both fell the last of the 33 fences, the latter being killed.


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