Thursday 22 June 2017

Power eyes more glory with Duke's National bid

After overcoming nasty injury, veteran jockey enjoying purple patch with Harrington's in-form yard

Robbie Power celebrates as he passes the winning post aboard Sizing John in this year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup. Photo: Sportsfile
Robbie Power celebrates as he passes the winning post aboard Sizing John in this year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup. Photo: Sportsfile

Johhny Ward

Robbie Power was in a room of the Mater Hospital last October, not a soul in the building likely to have known who he was, when he started to cry.

Some months had been and gone since a Galway Festival tumble which left him with a broken cheekbone and a complex fracture of his eye socket, though it is hard to recall much written about it at the time, such is the life of the jockey.

No big story - much like Robbie most of the time. And anyway, these are men of steel. As such, we do not expect them to cry.

"I was sitting in Mr Flitcroft's eye surgery that day," the Meathman recalls with the vigour of one telling a tale that he knows ends well. "He was explaining that it would take six months minimum to operate on my eye.

"As I sat there, tears were rolling down my face. I was basically thinking, six months of no racing."

That would have safely ruled out the Cheltenham Gold Cup, his other two Jessica Harrington-trained Festival winners, and his three Grade Ones for new ally Alan Potts at Aintree - a sextet that back then amounted to a laughably preposterous proposition.

"But Mr Flitcroft had never worked with a jockey before. He even asked, did we wear goggles. Then he said, 'maybe there is something we can do before we operate'.

"So he came up with idea of attaching this prism to the goggle and suddenly it felt like I had won the lotto. I then went into the Eye and Ear Hospital to Clare Sheehan and she attached the prism to my goggles.

Driving

"Riding out the next morning I was the kid waiting to see what Santa brought: I couldn't wait to see what Jessie's horses were working like. Driving there, I was just praying there was no double vision."

His vision as a child involved being a jockey. Power, 35, was an accomplished youngster on a pony-riding circuit which continues to serve as an incredibly successful pre-school for jockeys. As son of show-jumping veteran Captain Con Power (a member of the Irish team that dominated the Aga Khan Cup in the late '70s and who rode the legendary stallion Rockbarton), it was logical that teenage Robbie would go down that route.

"The highlight of showjumping was winning a silver medal at the European Young Rider Championships but I thought that financially it would be very difficult - it's a tough game in which you need to be selling horses to survive - and I always wanted to be a jockey anyway."

He'd been thinking weight would have his measure in that regard - at 16 he was already 10 stone - but he could not believe one day around four years later that he was back down to 10 stone. (Nowadays, he is happy his wife Hannah looks after his diet). So he knew he now had a chance to go down the route he desired, one to which his father, who trained in the '80s, had no objection.

He didn't appreciate when turning to Jessica Harrington that they'd win a Gold Cup together one day. "Jessie knew me since I was a kid. I approached her the day that Moscow Flyer made his chase debut at Fairyhouse and she said to come down to her that week.

"Shortly afterwards I rode one in a schooling race for Willie Mullins at Punchestown and through him I got a job with his father, Paddy. I joined Paddy around the Christmas of 2001."

Robbie talks of Paddy's genius and that manner of his - not saying two words if none would do. The pair combined for a Galway Plate success with Nearly A Moose in 2003 which particularly pleased the rider as the horse "very much had his own idea of how to jump. It was the launchpad of my career".

For Power, his nurturing through showjumping made him a better rider, but it probably took him until last month to be properly appreciated in a wider sense. Prior to winning the Grand National on Silver Birch in 2007, he was, he said, having his worst season ever. Within a few weeks he snared the Punchestown Champion Hurdle on a long-shot in Silent Oscar.

Not a great deal happened between then and his incredible Cheltenham treble in March. He had a single Cheltenham winner, Bostons Angel in 2011, but it was a case of lacking artillery rather than talent, at least in his own eyes.

"Personally I don't think I am riding any better than I was five years ago, or any differently - but that's sport. I guess a lad becomes a great player only after winning an All-Ireland final or scoring the winning goal.

"I've been lucky with the standard of horses Jessie has, and riding for Alan Potts; I think I am riding better horses and that's it really.

"Sometimes driving home after getting jocked off a horse, you'd be disappointed but you have to keep the head up and keep plugging away. I was surrounded by good people like Paul Carberry and Barry Geraghty. So many years going away from Cheltenham on Friday evenings I was disappointed but you just do your best and take what comes; there are good days around the corner."

The sheer randomness of life - Alan Potts falling out with Henry de Bromhead and Harrington thus getting Sizing John - is something Power can reflect on in years to come. Potts also sent her Coral Cup winner Supasundae and Power's Grand Annual win aboard Rock The World went beyond fantastic realms.

The clash of Coneygree and Sizing John at Punchestown is going to be compelling and the rest. "He seems in great form and it's going to be a great spectacle with Coneygree. At this time of year with these good horses, you don't know till you go to racing how they are, though."

He knows, though, that Our Duke is thriving and the gambled-on BoyleSports Irish Grand National favourite is ready for war at Fairyhouse on Monday. There are pros and cons to his chance, Power admits.

Downfall

"I always thought he was a very good horse, even if there's no getting away he has to get over his lack of experience, no secret there about that big downfall, but we've done a hell of a lot of schooling. A hell of a lot. I couldn't be happier with how he is jumping at home. Any horse can get away with one bad mistake, but not a continuation. A mistake mid-race will be OK but I'd prefer none at all!

"We'll have to ride the race as we find it. To compare them, he's a lot classier horse than Bostons Angel. To compare him to Sizing John, he's a lot more to learn before he gets near him but he is a work in progress. He's only had eight runs and he could be anything. He is so quiet at home we let Tracey Piggott ride him out. And he'll have no issue at all with the trip."

Then we talk about what the race signifies for him and words flow with abandon. "It would mean a hell of a lot. It's my local racecourse and I remember being there when Desert Orchard won the race, which was an unbelievable buzz. It's a race I always wanted to win and I got close when second in it with Oscar Time in 2010."

He has come a long way since that day he asked Harrington for a job and so has she. At 70, she is more impressive than ever, returning to riding out again after overcoming a wrist injury she sustained skiing. "She is unbelievable really, just an unbelievable horsewoman. She has a great team around her and I might be biased but to me she's the best dual-purpose trainer in the world: be it a five-furlong sprinter or Irish Grand National horse in Our Duke, it's immaterial."

After the month Power has had, anything more is a bonus. A bit like the patient poker player who suffered so many bad hands but now can't but draw aces, anything seems possible.

Irish Independent

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