After the sad demise of Go Native, Noel Meade is hoping for a change in fortune.
NOEL Meade stood at the brow of his all-weather gallop and watched Go Native gently canter towards him, his mobile phone pressed to his ear. It was a serene Friday morning in late November. On the end of the line was Martin Cullinane, the man who had originally sold the horse, and they discussed the immediate future, happy that Go Native had one after the serious tendon injury that had laid him low for two years.
Five days earlier, Go Native had crumpled at the last when on the girth of Hurricane Fly in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown without Paul Carberry having asked a definitive question. Meade brought the horse home, had him thoroughly examined and proclaimed himself as happy as he could be. His stable star was fit again and there were any number of targets to aim for. All seemed right with the world again.
It took just one agonising moment for everything to change. Meade heard disaster strike before he saw it, a grotesquely loud crack from 100 yards away that told him instantly to expect the worst. In the distance he could see Go Native's hock swinging uselessly mid-air and his regular work rider, Alan McIlroy, in shock beside him. It was one of those things, a freakish reminder of the brittleness of racehorses, that can cast a gloom over an entire yard.
There was a hideous quality to the accident, though, that even now, more than three weeks on, Meade is struggling to come to terms with. "Because Martin still has a big say in the horse, we were discussing whether we'd go to Leopardstown or Kempton over Christmas. That's what the conversation was about. Suddenly, there's no need to talk anymore. Because we don't have a horse to go anywhere. That's very hard to take."
It is 41 years since Meade sent out his first winner – after which his Tu Va stable took its name – and it is easy to assume that the regular setbacks which are part and parcel of the life might inure him to the heartbreak that follows. On the contrary, he says, you never grow accustomed to it. He thinks back to the horses he has lost and how deeply each loss affected him. None greater or lesser than any other. Just each in their own way different.
Around the turn of the century he lost Cardinal Hill to a bout of colic when he was spending the summer at JP McManus's home in Co Limerick. What hit Meade hard was the sense of blossoming potential that would never be fulfilled, the eternity of not-knowing. He thought Cardinal Hill might be the Champion Hurdler he had always yearned for. Instead the horse never lived past five.
He thinks of Iktitaf too, still on the bridle when falling at the second last in the 2005 Champion Hurdle. One day the horse had finished work when the idea of popping a few hurdles entered Meade's head and the last of them drew a fatal tendon injury.
"It haunted me for a long time afterwards," he says. "You ask yourself why did I jump him? There was no need to do it. With Go Native there was nothing. Everything was perfect. We couldn't have done anything differently."
That's the game, he thinks. You clock up the years and it doesn't get easier. You never crack the code. There's no handbook or accumulation of experience that makes it less harrowing to have to ring an owner and instead of regaling them with news of the latest sparkling workout, you begin the conversation with the last words they want to hear – "I'm afraid I've got bad news for you."
"I was talking to somebody about this recently," Meade says, "and he said you've got to be strong-minded. Because at times you can feel very down about things that happen. One day you're a king and the next you're a pauper – that's the way it is. You have to try and keep as much of a balance as you can. If you let yourself go up and down too much, you'd go mad. You just couldn't stick it."
So he contemplates where he is right now and it seems a blessing to be able to say he's nicely ticking over. To date, Meade has trained 38 winners this season and if that seems a modest total in comparison to the 101 saddled by Willie Mullins, it promises at least to be his best season for some time and a sign, perhaps, that the harshest years have passed. A renaissance of sorts.
The bad years hit Meade hard enough. But virtually every stable in the country has suffered too and there was never a time when Meade would have considered himself immune to the downturn. There was a time around the mid-point of the last decade when reaching 100 seasonal winners was the perennial target and Christmas week hailed a dizzying spell when horses were sent to all parts of the country, one or two bound for the hopeful ferry trip across the Irish Sea.
So things are quieter now. At his height, Meade supposes he was dealing with upwards of 150 horses, now he's down to maybe half that. He misses the wave of newly-minted builders and developers who crammed his Co Meath stable with good horses, of course. They invested heavily and understood racing, like property, to be a business that could go up or down depending on how fortune smiled upon you. And then they were gone, leaving the trainers to pick up the pieces as best they could.
"We all took a bit of a hit," he says, "although Willie [Mullins] was able to ride through it better than anyone else. He had a couple of very strong owners and he was able to buy very well. He had guys behind him like Rich Ricci who were recession-proof so he went into the recession on a good note. He was buying horses when nobody else could. And it helps that he's also very good at his job."
Meade might not have the ammunition to give Mullins a fight for the trainers' title right now – and doubts he will have any time soon – but he's determined to keep his nose in front of those ganging up behind him to try and snatch second. He's never lost his hunger or the anxiety the game regularly inflicts upon him when the best-laid plans go amiss. "The jigsaw doesn't always fit," he says wistfully. "A piece always seems to be missing."
Take Ned Buntline. The McManus-owned gelding looked special when running away with a Naas bumper last month but got turned over on his hurdling bow at Fairyhouse three weeks ago when Meade rated him a certainty. He'll contest the opening maiden hurdle at Leopardstown on Wednesday now, another chance to confirm his trainer's considerable faith. Again Meade will be hopeful, but you can never believe you are ahead of the game.
He sees a week of hope rather than certainty. On Friday, Monksland will likely reoppose Zaidpour and Voler La Vedette in the Christmas Hurdle and has over two lengths to find on the Mullins horse from their running at Fairyhouse. No cast-iron reason to anticipate a turn-around but Monksland is still just five and Meade expects the longer three-mile trip to elicit some improvement. Whether it will be enough, he supposes, remains to be seen.
It pleases him too to see Pandorama back to fitness again after a long period on the sidelines. Meade has no great notions about his talented nine-year-old repeating his polished victory in the 2010 Lexus Chase – "as hot a renewal has we've had in years" – but he's happy to have a horse again after Pandorama returned home lame following the 2011 Gold Cup, a day Meade still harbours regrets about.
"I didn't want to run him but my hand was forced," he says. "His owner pushed me into it. I don't mind saying that. On the morning of the race I'd decided I wasn't running him. But the owner said I want to run him. I said it would be madness. We'd be breaking him up. But he wanted to run and that was it."
Pandorama has pleased him at home on the gallops and, although turning 10 now, has only raced 13 times and, given soft conditions, Meade figures there are big races left in him yet. Only he doubts Friday will be one of them. Even at his best, he thinks, Pandorama might struggle to cope with the likes of Flemenstar and Sir Des Champs. Not to mention Tidal Bay, a possible challenger from the powerful Paul Nicholls yard.
"It's a hot race if they all turn up," he says. "I like Sir Des Champs, he just wasn't as finished a product as Flemenstar the last day at Punchestown. But if Flemenstar stays three miles with the speed he shows over two, I don't think Sir Des Champs will beat him. Over three miles two furlongs it might be different but around Leopardstown it's hard to see it changing. If Tidal Bay travels, I'd be wary of him. He ran a terrific race off top weight in the Hennessy. I'll be trying to beat them all, but that's probably wishful thinking on my part. I'll keep wishing anyway."
He flashes a smile that tells a lot about Meade and the high regard in which he is held. For years he couldn't buy a Cheltenham winner and it became the longest-running saga in Irish racing, played out annually to a soundtrack of heartbreaking near misses and crushed dreams. He nailed it finally in 2000 when Sausalito Bay beat Best Mate to land the Supreme Novices Hurdle and now he dreams of finding the key to unlock a Champion Hurdle or Gold Cup winner.
For Meade, the numbers were never the thing that mattered. Back in 2003, he saddled Harbour Pilot in the Gold Cup and remembers a colleague advising him to go the three-mile handicap route instead for which, he was assured, the horse was pitched in. Meade had no interest, though. Two years running Harbour Pilot finished third behind Best Mate in the Gold Cup and, to Meade, that was far more satisfying than winning a lesser race. Maybe it's a sign of age, he smiles. He wants better now, not necessarily more.
So he steps into the yard at daybreak every morning, looks over the young horses and his pulse always quickens. One he likes is Road To Riches, a recent winner at Cork, a big, imposing type which will improve with age and be brought along quietly. He likes Sword Of Destiny too but suspects he'll need soft ground to show his best and Cheltenham in spring isn't usually a place for soft-ground types. There'll be other targets if so.
"The thing is you can analyse things over and over in your head," he says, "and you get nowhere. You only wake up at night worrying. But then you get into the yard and out on the gallops and everything becomes clearer. It's the happiest place to be."
Over 40 years at the coalface and that much has never changed.