Monday 24 July 2017

Vincent Hogan: Power Play

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

With the English under sedation last night, you could be forgiven mistaking this pocket of Gloucestershire for an unguarded bank vault.

So many Commandments were being broken in the old town as Ireland celebrated a day of unique plunder. In the press room, salty old racing scribes shook their heads as if hearing that the Queen herself had had her bag snatched. Historians were incredulous.

Six Irish-trained winners on the bounce, all steered home by Irish jockeys. In fact, all seven successes were Irish-bred.

Short of planting a giant tricolor on Cleeve Hill and calling for a new handicapping system to clip Irish wings (some would argue one already exists), it was hard to imagine a more complete destruction of the home challenge.

In the wan light of a sharp March Wednesday, the Cheltenham hill never seemed less penal. Gordon Elliott saddled his first two Festival winners in just two and a half hours, and you had to remind yourself that it has taken Noel Meade the best part of two decades to accumulate just three.

You had to look too at the day endured by Ruby Walsh and Willie Mullins. Neither could buy a break after the glories of Tuesday. Or Paul Nicholls, the champion English trainer, who won the first race of the meeting and hasn't been back since. Or gods of the game, like Barry Geraghty and AP McCoy, still waiting to get off the mark.

And yet, on this ridiculous day, the Irish had been stockpiling.

Maybe no story encompassed the raw, mysterious appeal of the place quite like Robbie Power's. For on this very day five years ago, he sat in a bar with three pins in a broken right foot, watching Newmill win the Champion Chase.


Newmill should have been his ride, but he was a tired old champion by the time Power finally got to ride him at the Festival two years later. They came home nearly a furlong down.

Robbie was once a talented showjumper, taking after his father Con, a star of Irish Nations Cup teams in the 70s and 80s. Yet, he was drawn to racing and got to learn his trade under the wise old maestro Paddy Mullins.

He won a Galway Plate for Mullins in 2003 and then, most famously, the the '07 Grand National for Elliott's Silver Birch.

Elliott admitted yesterday that the achievement pretty much passed him by. "I was probably half drunk before the race," reflected the trainer with remarkable candour.

Power would have been no less nonchalant. Silver Birch, a 33/1 chance, was only his second National ride and he remembers thinking: "What's the big fuss about?"

Well, yesterday, Robbie Power understood the fuss of winning. Oscars Well's connections had been uniformly kind as he dismounted in the enclosure, struggling with words as if he had stones in his mouth.

Leading to the last in the Novices' Hurdle, Jessica Harrington's gelding looked poised to give him his first Festival win only to then buck, inexplicably, on landing. The traffic quickly swept past and Davy Russell got First Lieutenant home in a dramatic photo finish with Daryl Jacob's Rock on Ruby.

Robbie was inconsolable.

"He's jumped the hurdle perfectly and stopped," he told connections. "He's winged the hurdle, nearly jumped it too well. And he's paid an awful price, a price he didn't deserve to pay."

As he handed Harrington his saddle, the trainer could see her jockey's mind was in a sling. "Pick yourself up, it's done and dusted," she told him. He had Bostons Angel in the next. She needed him to climb out of this dark well.

So, she sent him back to the weigh-room, telling him simply: "This lad will win!"

Power would tell us later: "I went in, had a glass of Coke and took a couple of drags of a fag. Being honest, I was absolutely gutted. I couldn't have been any lower really."

Elysian Rock led them a big gallop in the RSA Steeplechase and the pace would take its toll, Willie Mullins' two candidates, Mikael d'Haguenet and Quel Esprit, both coming croppers. Climbing up the hill, it was down to a straight fight between Timmy Murphy's Jessies Dream and Bostons Angel. And, this time, Robbie won.

"Thirty five minutes ago, I couldn't have been any lower really," he told us in the enclosure. "I'd put all my eggs in one basket with him (Oscars Well), I thought he was our best chance of the week. I still think he would have won, but he's come to a complete standstill.

"I don't know how far clear I was, but if he had landed running, it's not a long run-in on the hurdle track. He definitely would have found enough up the hill.

"But the gods have turned around and, thanks be to God, I only had to wait 35 minutes for compensation. I mean, I was unbelievably low half an hour ago, but it's turned around and it's unreal now. The Grand National was a fantastic day, but the one thing that wasn't on my CV was a Cheltenham winner. Now I have one."

For Harrington, her yard so synonymous with this day through Moscow Flyer, that modern-day Pegasus with the sheepskin noseband and white star on his forehead, her faith in Power had found beautiful and instant vindication.

"He gave him a beautiful ride," she said of her stable jockey.

It was the great redemptive story of a day that probably flew beyond rational appraisal.

Apart from Elliott's victories with Chicago Grey and the 16/1 shot Carlito Brigante, he saddled that second (Jessies Dream) and a fourth (Plan A) in the Fred Winter.

For a young trainer, it amounted to an extraordinary statement of intent.

Derek O'Connor brought home the grey and offered a glimpse of the man behind a yard that looks destined to plunder many great races in the future.

O'Connor, a virtual point-to-point legend from Beagh in south Galway, explained: "Myself and Gordon rode point-to-points together, so his rise through the training ranks is phenomenal.

"The man is a genius. What he can do with horses is beyond me -- an absolutely gifted trainer with a great knowledge of his horses.

"He was able to tell me what that horse was going to do before he even done it through the whole race. That takes great knowledge, great presence of mind.

"Without doubt he'll eventually be challenging the likes of Willie Mullins and Noel Meade in years to come. He hasn't got the calibre of horses at the moment, but he will do it. There's no doubt he will.


"When a fella's able to train as well as he's able to train, the better horses will follow."

O'Connor's victory was his first Festival win, likewise Paul Townend's on What A Charm. Davy Russell bagged two, Mouse Morris -- wearing a salmon tie with yellow mice -- chuckling that "the fags got a fair dunt" as First Lieutenant came up the hill.

And, of course, Andrew Lynch guided the imperious Sizing Europe home for Henry de Bromhead in the feature.

Imagine. An Irish Champion Chase win just rolling by as part of the general narrative.

Winners of this race are often rated higher by the handicapper than the winner of the Gold Cup. Yet, from the slew of Irish successes, it passed almost as something humdrum.

Maybe the English need to put a call in to Angela Merkel.

Irish Independent

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