Friday 20 October 2017

Mulholland raring to chase Gold

Midnight Chase and Dougie Costello are going for gold at Cheltenham next week. Photo: PA
Midnight Chase and Dougie Costello are going for gold at Cheltenham next week. Photo: PA

Chris McGrath

His trainer remains younger than several jockeys in the race. Three years ago, former Aidan O'Brien apprentice Neil Mulholland was still riding against them.

The horse himself, meanwhile, was beaten out of sight in his first steeplechase last season. Yet not even those saddling three previous winners in the Cheltenham Gold Cup on Friday week will be remotely complacent, should Midnight Chase be on the premises as they begin that final climb to the post. As Mulholland says: "If he's still there at the bottom of the hill, he won't be far away at the top."

Anywhere else, even his astounding recent improvement would surely leave Midnight Chase too much to find. As it is, his relish for this pitiless hill means that nobody can discount him. Placed at 100/1 over hurdles at his first Festival, Midnight Chase has come bounding home first at Cheltenham four times inside the past year, in the process soaring 38lb up the handicap. On the latest occasion, he had been down on his knees three out.

"He'd cut into himself, pulled a shoe off, and was more or less galloping in bare feet," Mulholland recalled yesterday. "The other horse had got away on a roll, with 17lb less on his back. It was a fair performance to catch him.

"But he had been on the bridle going to the fence, and Dougie (Costello, his jockey) says he always finds an extra gear for that hill. The handicapper thinks we can finish fourth. And if we could do that -- well, there's still huge prize money. For a small yard like ours, in our third season, that would be unbelievable."

It should not need Midnight Chase to testify that the yard in question, which shares facilities with its landlords, the Pipe family, is supervised by a young trainer going places. Back in the autumn, the Antrim native placed one of his lesser horses for three wins and a second inside 11 days. At 30, he could easily be still smashing himself to pieces on the periphery of his first.

"But that wasn't ever going to happen," he said. "There was no point carrying on riding 15 winners a year. By the time you take away tax, valet fees, diesel and all the rest of it, you're left with nothing -- with 15 pats on the back. I'm too competitive to put up with that."

Even in his boyhood, Mulholland would go straight from the school bus to canter a point-to-pointer through the dusk. "I'd drop the horse off with the trainer a week before the race," he said. "He was no good but I got him to the track, and I wasn't 15."

Mulholland mustered 17 winners when first offered a salaried position in Dorset; 19 in his second season; and has already reached 20 in his first from this new base, in Somerset.

"We've a lot of average horses here, a lot of babies too," Mulholland said. "But we're having a lot of fun. We don't have expensive horses. But even a bad one -- so long as it's fit and healthy and can jump -- is going to run well in the worst races. And at least we can do battle with the big boys, even if we've only got one horse to take them on."

One horse is all it takes to win a Gold Cup. And Mulholland is infectiously pleased by Midnight Chase's preparations. (© Independent News Service)

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