Meade's team will go crazy if £1m bonus goes Native
When Sausalito Bay finally ended Noel Meade's 22-year wait for a first Cheltenham Festival winner, the trainer got down on his knees and kissed the blessed turf in the winner's enclosure. "I can die a happy man now," he said.
That was 10 years ago and two more victories at the Festival have followed, but the meeting has still not always proved a happy hunting ground for Meade.
He winces as he recalls the short-head defeat of Hill Society in the Arkle Trophy, the time Native Dara was reeled in by the fast-finishing What's Up Boys in the Coral Cup and the 2005 Champion Hurdle where the faltering Harchibald snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
But there is more than ever before at stake for Meade this year when Go Native bids for the biggest prize in jumps racing when he lines up in the Champion Hurdle. It is the fourth year that the betting exchange WBX.com has offered a £1m bonus to the connections of any horse winning the Fighting Fifth Hurdle, Kempton's Christmas Hurdle and then next week's hurdling championship.
Last season, only a fall two out at Kempton stood between Punjabi and the payout, called "the most expensive fall in racing" by his trainer, Nicky Henderson.
Go Native has already proven himself at Cheltenham, having taken the Supreme Novices Hurdle 12 months ago. Since then, he suffered a slightly disappointing defeat at the hands of the mare Voler La Vedette before putting himself in line for the bonus by winning at Newcastle and Kempton, both victories coming under Davy Condon while Paul Carberry was suspended for a failing an alcohol test. Carberry will be back in the saddle next week.
But things have not always gone so smoothly for Go Native. Ninth on his debut, Meade was so disappointed by the performance that he spent the next 10 days wondering where he had gone wrong. Then, the following year, when he was supposed to be having a run at Kilbeggan to put him right for a contest at Galway, he won.
The first horse owned by the Docado syndicate, a group of three families, the Doyles, Carrs and Dowds, who own a Galway hotel, he has won more than £310,000 in prize money, but will take those earnings through the roof if lifting the bonus, with the owners taking £700,000 (on top of the race's first prize) and Meade £150,000.
Of the remainder, £50,000 will be split among the stable staff and £100,000 to Alan McIlroy, Go Native's groom. A Manchester United season ticket for him and his young son, Jack, is high on the shopping list.
McIlroy took over the horse when Daragh Bourke, who had travelled with Go Native across to Newcastle, chose to follow his dream of becoming a jockey and ride at Limerick rather than go to Kempton for Go Native's latest victory. "When I left school at 16, to come here, my dream was to ride winners for Noel Meade," he said. "My dream wasn't to have a lot of money."
About an hour after he had watched Go Native hold off Starluck in a photo finish, Bourke was celebrating a winner of his own. He won on Original Option. Sometimes it is about more than just the money, but should Go Native take the bonus, Bourke's recently-purchased VW Golf will be paid off by his mate.
Meade is taking a small team to Cheltenham and has pulled Pandorama out of the following day's RSA Chase. Probably not a bad idea, according to the trainer. "If Go Native wins, there'd have been nobody left to saddle him."