Robbie Power experienced both the highs and lows of the Festival last year, in the space of just 40 minutes. He talks to Jonathan Mullin about that day, and looks forward to this year's rides, which include Big Zeb
OF COURSE there isn't really time to think.
You've held your breath for too long. It's the last hurdle in the Neptune. Beneath you is Oscars Well, one of the best horses you've ever sat on. You're not superstitious but over the past few weeks as you travelled the frosty byroads of Ireland, shuttling from one Cheltenham Preview Night stage to another, you played down what you thought you were sitting on. The winner of the Neptune. A Cheltenham banker. And now, with the roar from the stands sucking the field up the famous hill, the race couldn't be working out any better. A smooth run up the inside, jumping and travelling, and now you've produced your partner at the last to win his race. Two horses to your right - First Lieutenant and So Young; one horse to your left - Rock On Ruby. And one hurdle in front. You think you'll take them all. All that's in your head is meeting the last on the right stride but if you thought about it you'd be thinking about a first festival winner. This luckless place, a track that has never thrown you the crumb of a festival winner. Hell, you don't even like it that much. But of course there isn't really time to think. Oscars Well comes out of your hands, pings the last, you grab the reins together to send him on his merry way and then - bang - from nowhere the horse pitches on landing, loses his hind legs, crucial momentum and any chance of winning. Together you pull up a gallant fourth, and steer down the sand chute in front of the stands to make the long journey back to the unsaddling enclosure. There's plenty of time to think now. They say time is a healer but almost 12 months on you get the impression that Robbie Power still lives the final hurdle in the Neptune as if it were yesterday. A scab still there to be picked. 'Ruby [Walsh] said to me back in the weighroom: ' look, he got beat, it was no one's fault, wouldn't it be worse if he got beat and it was your fault'. 'It was hard to take at the time,' he admits. 'Last year was the first year I went with two really live chances and I had put a lot of pressure on myself to ride a Festival winner. I had been placed a couple of times - second in the Pertemps, second in the RSA - but they were outsiders that had run really well. 'So I was as gutted for the owners and for the horse as I was for myself. The horse had done nothing wrong all year and I would love to have seen the owners win at Cheltenham. Besides, I had another chance of winning that day, they didn't." Within a blur of minutes Jessica Harrington was legging Power up on Bostons Angel, a two-time Grade 1 winner who, because he carved out victories at Leopardstown with a blunt chisel rather than a sharp blade, punters sent him off a 16-1 shot. 'I had a cigarette and a chat with myself. I had a game plan for Bostons Angel and, as a professional, you just have to go out and ride that game plan.' As plans go, Hannibal Smith would have been proud of that one because on Bostons Angel, this plan came together. 'You'd study different riders' styles a lot, and out of the corner of my eye I saw Timmy Murphy make a little move on Jessie's Dream just as we straightened up. And the response wasn't immediate. I said to myself as we headed to second last 'if I stick with this fellow for a bit and get him off the bridle, I'll beat him in a battle'. And in fairness to my lad he get sticking and sticking, and when Timmy got anxious I knew my fellow would win going up that hill. 'It's a long walk back down that chute to the parade ring and you get to soak up that atmosphere. It's the closest a jockey can come to scoring a goal in an FA Cup final. I've ridden a Grand National winner and that was fantastic, and I've ridden Grade 1 winners too. They're all special - be it at Leopardstown or Punchestown. But to ride a winner at the festival is something else.' His mother and father, Mags and Con, watched proudly from home, and when Power eventually left the racecourse that evening and turned on his mobile phone, the 'call catcher' had registered ten missed efforts from his mother and a text that roared ' CALL ME!!' 'Up until last year I had no luck in the place and didn't like the place!" he says, "but I suppose a winner changes all of that. I was just lucky that after Oscars I had to wait only 40 minutes to get my Cheltenham winner, some lads have to wait a year." He has a thicker book of rides this time around: there's Big Zeb in the Champion Chase, Oscars Well in the Champion Hurdle, Steps To Freedom - the winter favourite for the Supreme - and a few lively outsiders. 'Once upon a time I had the ride on Newmill but broke my foot out hunting about three or four weeks before Cheltenham. It just didn't heal in time for the Champion Chase so it was a real kick in the arse,' he says. 'I'd be perfectly happy to put a line through Big Zeb's run the last day. Sizing Europe set a right gallop on heavy ground and he was never going on it. Usually he'd be a little bit keen in the race but he just wasn't traveling and wasn't taking it on. I suppose the plus-side was that because I knew from so far out that I wasn't going to win, I wasn't that hard on him.' A former winner, Big Zeb disputed favoritism for the Champion Chase before the Punchestown blow-out. Now he's 5-1 for the big race. Power says: 'Look it takes the pressure off, doesn't it?' Whatever about waiting for the leg-up on Big Zeb, the countdown clock for the festival ticks loudly in his head - he rides Steps To Freedom, last year's Aintree bumper hero and a fancy for the opening Supreme Novices Hurdle. 'I was keen after he won at Punchestown that he'd have a break because of his busy season but Jessie and the owners wanted to go to Cheltenham in November for some course form to see if he handled the track. 'He won and I was very happy with that because I felt in Cheltenham that he had gone over the top a little bit, usually when you pull him out and give him a squeeze he takes off but it took him a long time to pick up at Cheltenham. 'Jessie's happy that a racecourse gallop at Leopardstown on Sunday week is all he needs so it's all systems go and if my horse turns up on the day and produces what we think he can, he'll take all the beating.' Power will also team up again with Oscars Well who he says has improved again from his run behind Hurricane Fly in the Irish Champion Hurdle. 'I can't say we'll beat Hurricane at Cheltenham - but he's improved so much since Leopardstown that he will get closer,' he predicts.