Saturday 1 October 2016

The breeder hoping to steal some Cheltenham limelight

He narrowly missed out on Annie Power, but Cathal Ennis has a live contender for today's Champion Hurdle

Siobhan English

Published 16/03/2016 | 02:30

Identity Thief and Bryan Cooper winning at Down Royal last October. Photo: Alain Barr
Identity Thief and Bryan Cooper winning at Down Royal last October. Photo: Alain Barr
Willie Mullins and Annie Power at the Mullins' HQ in Closutton, Co Carlow. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire.

If either Annie Power or Identity Thief can land the Stan James Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham this afternoon, Cathal Ennis will still be a happy man.

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As a proud breeder of Identity Thief he has watched the son of Kayf Tara grow and mature in recent years, but Mr Ennis has also followed with great interest Annie Power's rise to fame from the days when she grazed his Westmeath paddocks as a foal eight years ago.

"I tried to buy Annie Power's dam Anno Luce when she was in foal to Shirocco but lost out as under-bidder to Eamon Cleary," he explained. "When I made some money on another horse I put in an offer on her again and finally secured her, but only on one condition, that Eamon got the foal after it was born."

"That foal turned out to be Annie Power and I must admit that it was hard to watch her first few races knowing she was going to be something special, but wasn't mine."

From Shirocco's first crop, the mare is unbeaten in all but two starts and looked set to win the Grade 1 OLBG Mares' Hurdle 12 months ago before falling at the last under Ruby Walsh. She has run twice since then, winning her Mares' Hurdle contests at Punchestown with ease, and could be a wise late entry for the Champion Hurdle for trainer Willie Mullins and owners Susannah and Rich Ricci following the withdrawal of Faugheen, also owned by the Riccis and winner in 2015, and other stablemate Arctic Fire.

Anno Luce later went on to breed a further three foals for her new owner, but sadly died from colic just as Annie Power began her rise to prominence.

"I had already sold her half-sister by Hernando to France, but when Annie started winning it was impossible to buy her back."

While the breeder often regrets leaving Annie Power slip through the net, he is delighted that the family of Identity Thief is still very much part of his breeding operation at Quill Farm near Kilbeggan.

Mr Ennis bought his dam Miss Arteea as a three-year-old at the Land Rover Sale. Well-bred as a half-brother to the good chaser Arteea, the daughter of Flemensfirth never raced due to injury but has proven to be a worthy broodmare over the years, with the success of Identity Thief only adding to the value of her offspring as times passes.

"I paid a lot for the mare at the time," Mr Ennis commented, "but she has done well for us breeding. We have about 15 mares here at the moment," commented the advertising executive with The Sunday Business Post. "I also had Papoose, the dam of the 2011 Grand National hero Ballabriggs, and bred a few winners from her too but sadly she died on us last year."

Her other offspring include Queen of Mantua, by Old Vic and a winner of two races in the UK for trainer Fergal O'Brien.

Among Miss Arteea's other progeny is the seven-year-old Oscar gelding Oscarteea, trained in the UK by Neil Mulholland and entered for the Coral Cup on Wednesday. Another five-year-old by King's Theatre is in training with David Pipe, while the breeder has retained a two-year-old filly by Oscar and a three-year-old by Milan.

"The three-year-old got injured so we have just covered her with Robin De Champs.

"Miss Arteea herself is due to foal to Milan later in the spring and will hopefully go back to Kayf Tara after that."

Sold by his breeder as a foal during the November NH Sale, Identity Thief was snapped up by Ian Ferguson for a modest sum of €15,000.

Three years later he returned to Tattersalls when consigned by Hardwood Stud and was spotted by trainer Gordon Elliott, who went to €40,000 to secure him on behalf of current owners Gigginstown Stud.

Winning streak

Boasting the world-recognised maroon and white colours the gelding impressed right from the start with Henry De Bromhead, winning his first two races on the track as a four-year-old in good style at Fairyhouse and Leopardstown.

It would be 10 months before he would win again, this time in Down Royal last October, but he continued his winning streak in the Grade 1 Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle a month later before finishing an impressive second to Nichols Canyon in the Grade 1 Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown over Christmas.

Given a break since then, the six-year-old is back in top form, with the trainer excited about his prospects with Faugheen no longer in contention.

"He's in really good form and I'm delighted with him," said De Bromhead.

"The race has opened up (with Faugheen out). I'm delighted with him at home and he seems in good form. Hopefully we'll get there and we'll see how we go.

"He had his three runs up to Christmas and had a tough race at Christmas. It was nice to back off him for a few weeks. He looks well and seems well.

"The day he won in Down Royal it was pretty nice ground and presumably we'll get that, although it's been a different year this year," said the trainers.

"When he won his bumper it was good ground and he was very impressive that day."

When told that Paul Nicholls had flagged Identity Thief up as the one to beat at a Cheltenham preview after racing at Ascot, he said: "That's always nice to hear. He knows his stuff."

As for the horse's breeder, Cathal Ennis says: "It's very exciting and I'm really looking forward to the race now."

Annie bids to emulate Dawn Run

Only three mares have won the prestigious Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham since its first running in 1927 - African Sister (1939), Dawn Run (1984) and Flakey Dove in 1994.

A daughter of the highly successful National Hunt sire Deep Run, Dawn Run was bought for a mere 5,800 guineas as an unbroken three-year-old. Over a career which spanned just four years she not only won the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham in 1984 but also the Gold Cup two years later.

She remains the only horse to have completed this double at the Festival and one of only four mares who have won the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Dawn Run's famous victory for trainer Paddy Mullins, owner Charmaine Hill and jockey Jonjo O'Neill will long be remembered as one of the most memorable in Irish racing, but now the Mullins family will bid to add their name to the hall of fame once again as race favourite Annie Power (pictured top right) takes on some of her most formidable rivals in this afternoon's £400,000 contest.

Willie Mullins had initially intended to run the eight-year-old in the OLBG Mare' Hurdle, from which she made a spectacular exit when falling at the last fence in 2015.

However, with 2015 Champion Hurdle winner Faugheen and Arctic Fire both withdrawn through injuries, and Annie Power scoring a fine win in the Mares' Hurdle in Punchestown last month, her connections wisely decided to supplement her late entry for the opening day's feature race at a cost of £20,000.

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