HE LAUGHS about it now, but you can bet he wasn't overly amused at the time. Missing the festival for the first time in donkey's years meant that the humour wasn't great to begin with.
A four-grand pot at Down Royal might have made the eight-hour round trip from his Castlelyons base just about bearable but instead Rodger Sweeney was left cursing his decision to send Salsify up north for a hunters chase on St Patrick's Day. 'The f**ker got rid of the Mangan chap at the first fence,' Sweeney says. 'I missed Cheltenham over it and, if that wasn't bad enough, the bloody bumper was delayed for over half an hour because we couldn't catch him. It was the hardest race he every got.' Twelve months on and Sweeney isn't making the same mistake again. The flights and accommodation are already booked but this time he has an extra passenger. The same Salsify that got no further than the first at Down Royal has evolved into Ireland's leading hope for the Christies Foxhunters. It's been a remarkable rise to the top of the hunter chase ranks for son of Beneficial. Any fears that the Down Royal spill would dent his confidence were extinguished five weeks later at Fairyhouse when he won the prestigious Joseph O'reilly Memorial at Fairyhouse's Easter meeting. Then it was onto Punchestown for Irish Racing Post Champion Hunters Chase where he clashed with plenty of those that were involved at Cheltenham. A short-head success over the fast-finishing Newbay Prop confirmed him as the best in the business. Something that hasn't surprised Sweeney.
'The first time he ran in a point at Ballydurn we knew that he had a lot of pace. Coleman was giving him an educational run but when he gave him a few thumps, he went from 20 lengths behind to only getting beaten under three. 'The funny thing about it was, if he had given him a poke sooner, he probably would have won and then he would have been sold.' But he stayed with Sweeney and the plan was to get him handicapped over hurdles. You would have needed a pretty expensive pair of binoculars to spot him at Limerick on his racecourse debut and he was beaten 52 lengths next time at Navan. There was a slight improvement at Cork on ground he detested when he trailed in sixth of 16 but it hardly warranted a mark of 98. His trainer certainly wasn't impressed. 'We wanted to get him handicapped but I thought the mark he got was far too high so that was why we went back to the point-to-pointing scene. I guess it was a blessing in disguise as he went out and won at Lisronagh on good ground and he just kept improving after that.' Not seven until April, Salsify is only a toddler in a game dominated by veterans. 'He'll be a fair tool in 12 months time, he'll be touching eight then,' says Sweeney. But one can't help but think his time in the spotlight might arrive sooner than expected following his latest victory on Hennessy Day at Leopardstown. The Raymond Smith Memorial, ran a half an hour after the big one, is traditionally the key Irish trial for the Foxhunters at the festival. This year it was particularly competitive with the previous year's winner On The Fringe returning and the lavishly-rated pair Vic Venturi and The Tother One testing the waters. But Salsify made them all look slow, very slow. 'He was impressive alright, but the race didn't suit him at all. They didn't go much of a gallop and that's why he was so free early on. I was watching the race next to a good friend of mine, Noel Kerrane, and I said to him after a few fences that this fella will win nothing if he doesn't drop it soon. 'But fair dues to him, he jumped brilliantly and won well. Sure he got no race at all. Coleman only asked him for a stride coming to the last and away he went. I think he'll improve a fair bit for that run and, if he does, he'll be there or thereabouts at Cheltenham with a bit of luck.' Making the trip to Cheltenham is nothing new for Sweeney. Heading there with a runner is. 'He'll be my first ever runner there. Sure I've only got him and Fiery Oscar running under rules. Then I've three four year-old pointers and one of those isn't named yet. He probably won't be worth naming. Most trainers, with a lot more horses than me, might go a lifetime without getting a good one, so I know how lucky I am.' He mightn't have had a runner in it but Sweeney has had a vested interest in the Foxhunters before. That was back in 2005 when his son Coleman was on favourite Sleeping Night for the all-conquering Paul Nicholls yard. 'I was at home on the Thursday and Coleman rang me to tell me to get a flight over because he had a right chance of winning the Foxhunters. So away I went and it was a brilliant day. He won well and it was great for him.' After winning on Sleeping Night, Coleman knows what it takes to win the Foxhunters. So how does Salsify compare? 'I've been asked that question about ten times in the last week,' he replies. 'Sleeping Night was a fast horse with a real high cruising speed and he would pick up off it. He was real long and low at his fences and there was no such thing as going in short. If you got in tight, it was Goodnight Irene. 'Salsify is more of a pacier horse over the three miles and jumps so well. He just seems to be able to lob away in mid-division or towards the back of the field and in the space of a fence or three or four strides, he's able to get himself into a race.' There are sceptics who say he won't get up the hill at Cheltenham but Coleman isn't concerned. 'Before Leopardstown I had a small doubt but not after it. He was so keen early on and made a terrible mistake at the second last but he still galloped all the way to the line. He was pricking his ears and he had plenty left in the tank. He'll have no problem staying, I'm sure of that.' Owned by his mother Joan, should Salsify get up the hill in-front it will be a one of those festival fairytales that the public latch onto. That image of mother, father and son on the podium at Prestbury is starting to look more believable after Leopardstown.