Cheltenham 2011 will always hold a special place in the heart of Tubber jockey Derek O’Connor, who ended his festival hoodoo in great style when riding two winners at last week’s Prestbury Park bonanza.
The seven times point-to-point champion – widely regarded as the finest amateur jockey this country has ever produced – filled a big void in his otherwise excellent CV when steering Gordon Elliott’s Chicago Grey to victory in the National Hunt Chase in Wednesday’s opening race, before really gilding the lily with a 33/1 success aboard Zemsky in Friday’s Christie’s Foxhunter Chase.
O’Connor travelled to Cheltenham aware that Chicago Grey held an excellent chance and this was clearly evident as the grey son of Luso came in for strong support, which saw him go off 5/1 favourite for this four-mile contest.
Not the most straightforward of rides, Chicago Grey was settled into a lovely rhythm by O’Connor, who scraped the paint off the rails as he hunted the nine-year-old around at the rear of the field.
Approaching four lengths out, Chicago Grey made eye-catching progress on the inner that saw him improve to track the front-running Beshabar going to the second last.
Squaring up to the final fence, it was evident that Chicago Grey was travelling best and a fine leap confirmed that with the market leader forging clear on the uphill climb to the post to score by four-and-a-half-lengths.
This was a historic success for O’Connor and it clearly showed as he made his way back down the chute to the winner’s enclosure with a tricolour draped across his shoulders. Any Irish winner at Cheltenham receives a huge welcome, but a well-backed one is even more popular with the roar that greeted O’Connor, trainer Elliott and Galway owner John Earls up there with any heard during the four days.
Speaking in Cheltenham’s hallowed winner’s circle minutes after dismounting, an elated O’Connor said, “I never thought that Cheltenham was the be all and end all, but there is no better feeling than coming in here on a winner with the Irish flag on your back. The race went like a dream for me all the way; he jumped super and is an out and out stayer. Gordon Elliott, Paul Carberry, and owner John Earls gave me great confidence about this horse and that was a big help to me.”
Winning trainer Gordon Elliott was full of praise for O’Connor saying, “You have to have the good amateurs on your side in this race. Derek gave this horse a great ride – A P (McCoy) wouldn’t have given this horse a better ride today. I was never worried at any stage.”
If O’Connor was on a high after Wednesday’s success, things were to get even better for the gifted Tubber horseman when he guided 33/1 shot, Zemsky, to victory in the Foxhunters on Friday afternoon.
Just to show that when things are rolling for you, there may have been a certain element of good fortune attached to this success as last year’s winner, 3/1 favourite Baby Run, was still in command when unseating his rider, William Twiston-Davies, at the penultimate fence.
His departure allowed the chasing Zemsky a free run with O’Connor popping the Ian Ferguson-trained long shot over the last en-route to registering a comfortable 17-length win.
Summing up the most important week of his racing life to-date, O’Connor said, “To have ridden one winner was fantastic, but a double is just out of this world. To be honest, it is the stuff of dreams and it still hasn’t sunk in. I never had the best of luck at this venue in the past, but all that is a just a memory now and I will never forget this week as long as I Iive.”
While O’Connor was due to ride at the Maralin, Down point-to-point meeting on Saturday afternoon, the fact that this fixture was postponed allowed the 28-year-old a bit of breathing space to celebrate his great week in the foot of the Cotswolds.
Having flown into Dublin airport late on Friday night, O’Connor made his way home to Tubber around 2.30am where the bonfires were blazing to welcome home their local hero. Champagne corks were popping well into the night as friends and family gathered to honour the man whose exploits in the saddle are admired by all.
With his Cheltenham festival duck now firmly broken, O’Connor wasted little time in getting back into the swing of things on the domestic scene when posting his 54th success of the 2010/11 point-to-point season aboard the aptly-named Positive Equity at last Sunday’s Lismore, Waterford session.
Trained in Bartlemy, Cork by Garrett Ahern, this 7/1 shot, whose previous form was less than inspiring benefitted from the ‘O’Connor factor’ when forging clear in the closing stages of the concluding mares’ maiden to beat the Ciaran Fennessy-ridden Shantara by five lengths.
Brilliant week for the Irish
What a success story for the Irish at Cheltenham last week? Thirteen wins, an almost clean sweep on Wednesday, Champion Hurdle success for Hurricane Fly, leading trainer and rider awards for Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh, could things have been better?
Cheltenham 2011 will be hard to surpass in the years ahead that’s for sure. The meeting got off to the perfect start for the Irish when Hurricane Fly gave Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh their first Champion Hurdle success when justifying 11/4 favouritism in Tuesday’s feature.
Set alight by Walsh early in the home straight, Hurricane Fly showed a fine turn of foot when scorching home to beat Peddler’s Cross. Mullins and Walsh were to team up again later in the afternoon as super mare, Quevega (5/6F) claimed the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle for the third year-in-a-row.
In between, Sizing Australia won the Cross County Chase for Ireland at odds of 12/1. Andrew Lynch’s mount showed his liking for this unique course when forging clear to deny runner-up Garda Champetre with last year’s winner, Ennis-owned A New Story (12/1), again running a blinder to fill third.
Day two at the festival really belonged to the Shamrock brigade with six of the seven winners trained in Ireland. There really was a surreal feeling in the packed enclosures as Chicago Grey, First Lieutenant, Boston’s Angel, Sizing Europe (Queen Mother Champion Chase), Carlito Brigante and What A Charm rattled off the first six races, with the sequence only interrupted when Cheltenian (an ex-Irish horse) claimed the bumper for Philip Hobbs.
Normal service was restored in Thursday’s opener as Paul Nolan’s Noble Prince took the Jewson Novices’ Chase under Tony McCoy, which equalled our best total ever at the meeting with 10 wins.
One of the star performances of the week came in the World Hurdle where Big Buck’s was unbelievable. He really is a tank of a horse and, despite Ruby Walsh losing his whip at the final flight, he battled like a tiger when challenged by Grand Crus to land his third stayers crown for Paul Nicholls.
Gold Cup day belonged to Long Run and his amateur pilot Sam Waley-Cohen. Both horse and rider were questioned in some quarters as to their Gold Cup credentials, but the duo proved their doubters wrong with a power-packed effort which saw Long Run become the first six-year-old since Mill House in 1963 and Waley-Cohen the first amateur since Jim Wilson 30 years ago to land chasing’s Blue Riband.
Past winners, Kauto Star and Denman, had the pulses racing when leading on the run to two out, but the young pretender Long Run was stalking the pair and the 7/2 favourite unleashed a winning run when powering away up the famous Cheltenham hill be see off Denman by seven lengths. Kauto Star lost little in defeat when a further four lengths back in third.
Earlier in the afternoon, Final Approach had given Ireland what was record-breaking 11th success at the meeting when coming late and fast to deny a major gamble on JP McManus’ Get Me Out Of Here in the County Hurdle, with Zemsky in the Foxhunters and Sir Des Champs, under a brilliant ride from Emmett Mullins, completing the Irish haul in the David Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle.
Good times for local syndicate
IT was a good weekend for the locally-based Enyaboyu Syndicate whose even-money favourite Steele’s Rock scored in impressive fashion at Gowran Park on Saturday.
Placed in a couple of bumper outings, Steele’s Rock, named after a well-known Ennis landmark, made no mistake in the opening two and a half-mile maiden hurdle at the Kilkenny track when showing great reserves of stamina.
Sent straight into the lead by jockey Tim Doyle, Steele’s Rock made light of his task when putting his nine rivals to the sword with a fine display that saw the King’s Theatre six-year-old cross the line three lengths ahead of Henry De Bromhead’s runner-up, Sizing Symphony.
The winner, who was eased considerably near the finish, is trained in Windgap by two-time Kilkenny All-Ireland hurling medal winner Kieran Purcell for the nine-strong syndicate that includes Ennis publican Gerry Kelly and former Clare and Clarecastle hurler John Callinan. Other members include St Joseph’s, Doora-Barefield GAA stalwarts JJ Fahy and Stephen Lahiffe, Ennis-based duo Tom Saunders and Brendan McNamara and Shannon butcher Aidan Nagle.
Winning trainer Purcell was impressed with his charge’s efforts. “This is a lovely horse,” he said. “He has been unlucky not to have won up to now but it is great for the lads that he finally put his head in front. It all depends on the handicapper now where we go next, there is a winners of one for him at Limerick on Sunday, April 3 or a handicap at Gowran to suit the previous afternoon.”
Another local racing enthusiast, Ennis solicitor Joe Chambers, was on good terms with himself when the horse he part-owns, Temlett, landed a mighty gamble in a handicap hurdle at Cork last Sunday.
Returning to action following a following a near three-year break, Temlett, who was backed as high as 25/1 in the morning into 11/2 joint-favourite at the off, made every post a winning one under Cork-born jockey Paul Townend, running on strongly in the closing stages to hold the challenge of runner-up Echo Bob by two lengths.
Formerly of Willie Mullins’ yard, Temlett, whose last run was when eighth behind Solwhit at the 2008 Punchestown Festival, is now trained by amateur jockey John Daniel Moore, who had the son of Desert Prince in good heart despite his long lay-off.
“We have no firm plans for him; he may go home and have another break now,” said the Kildare trainer.
McNamara swoops as flat season opens
THE 2011 Flat season kicked off at the Curragh last Sunday with Croom, Limerick trainer, Andrew McNamara, rolling back the years when claiming the www.thetote.com Irish Lincoln with 25/1 shot Drombeag Dawn.
McNamara, father to top jockeys Andrew and Robbie, and a prominent dual-purpose handler, was bridging a long gap having taken this race 25-years ago with Colonel James.
This year’s contest developed into a tremendous dual with the winner having to pull out all the stops under Ben Curtin in the final strides to fend off Kevin Manning’s mount, Toraidhe, owned by former Tyrone footballer Peter Canavan, by a short-head. With just two lengths separating the first six home, it was a real blanket finish as Richard Fahey’s UK raider, Kyllachy Star, filled third with Rory Anna in fourth.
McNamara, who trains the winner for Cian McAuliffe from Athlacca, Limerick, divulged, “This mare had been working well and I expected her to run well. She was second in this race last year and loves it around here. My only other winner at the Curragh was on this day 25 years ago and it’s great to be in the winner’s enclosure again.”
Hinting at where Drombeag Dawn may go next, McNamara said, “We’ll step her up on trip now, possibly to ten furlongs. I was going to go over hurdles with her, but I might have to have a rethink on that now.”
Tommy Stack made a blistering start to last year’s Flat season and the former Grand National-winning rider looks set for another good campaign having registered an opening-afternoon double.
Blue Dahlia provided Stack with opening leg of his double when taking successful in the six-furlong handicap under a strong drive from 16-year-old Shane Grey.
Stack’s brace was completed in the Group 3 Lodge Park Stud as 5/2 joint-favourite Lolly For Dolly accounted for Aidan O’Brien’s Gemstone.
Ridden by Wayne Lordan, Lolly For Dolly quickened up impressively when asked to do so, bursting clear inside the final furlong to score by two lengths.
O’Brien had earlier opened his 2011 account when sending out Sing Softly (8/1) to claim the six-furlong maiden for three-year-olds.
Seamie Heffernan did the steering aboard this daughter of Hennessy, who got the master of Ballydoyle off the mark with his first runner when proving two lengths too strong for runner-up Rose Bonheur.
The honour of saddling the first winner of the season fell to Jim Bolger, whose 10/1 shot, Whip Rule, was awarded the opening five-furlong maiden in the stewards’ room.
Tough As Nails lived up to his name in this five-furlong event when passing the post in front, but the stewards deemed that Gary Carroll’s mount had interfered with Whip Rule, with the latter awarded the spoils following a stewards’ inquiry.
Carroll enjoyed a measure of compensation later in the afternoon when successful on Mick Halford’s Defining Year in the seven-furlong handicap.
This 7/1 shot was carrying top weight of 9-10, but he showed his courage here when battling under that heavy burden to beat 3/1 favourite Adilapour by a short-head.
Dermot Weld is hard man to keep out of the winner’s circle at Headquarters and the Rosewell House handler got in on the act when claiming the concluding maiden with Sapphire.
Apparently unfancied in the ring, the 11/1 chance belied that lack of confidence when running on strongly in the closing stages under Pat Smullen to fend off Jim Bolger’s 15/8 favourite Claoimh Solais by three lengths.