Monday 23 January 2017

Fleming proving a shrewd signing

Connell's string starting to flourish after he opted to overhaul his team

Published 16/11/2015 | 02:30

The Charles Byrnes-trained Leave At Dawn, ridden by Barry Geraghty (centre), jumps the last on the way to winning the Intermediate Handicap Hurdle at Cheltenham on Saturday for owner JP McManus
The Charles Byrnes-trained Leave At Dawn, ridden by Barry Geraghty (centre), jumps the last on the way to winning the Intermediate Handicap Hurdle at Cheltenham on Saturday for owner JP McManus

Barry Connell has pumped a lot of money into acquiring precocious horses in the quest for glory but his shrewdest investments are proving to be in the realm of human resources.

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Alan Fleming, Connell's newly-appointed private trainer, is making an enormous impact in the season's early exchanges. Connell has, in recent years, been one of the major players on the National Hunt scene in terms of financial clout.

However, for all that he has enjoyed memorable triumphs with horses like The Tullow Tank, Mount Benbulben, Martello Tower and Foxrock, you couldn't say that his on-track yield was consistently in tandem with his hefty outlay.

Maybe that is being harsh and there is no doubt that it can take time to fashion a regime that can reconcile a particular owner's ambition and means. Still, there had been a few noticeably expensive duds such as Old Kilcash, Minsk and Mossey Joe, with Our Conor an archetypal cautionary tale in the folly of splurging big on jumpers.

Reputed to have been acquired for in excess of €1m after his Triumph Hurdle heroics, Dessie Hughes' charge was fatally injured in the 2014 Champion Hurdle on just his fourth start for the popular Carrickmines hedge fund manager and former amateur rider. You can't buy luck - but you can identify and pay for expertise.

As an astute businessman, Connell was hardly going to invoke Einstein's definition of insanity by doing the same thing over and over expecting different results.

He decided that something had to change. As is often the case, the retained jockey was the first to fall. Danny Mullins had been appointed slightly prematurely and couldn't reasonably be made the scapegoat.

However, Connell (below) opted to freshen things up by replacing him with Adrian Heskin, who, despite being just a day older, was further along in his development as a jumps jockey than Mullins had been when he was appointed as a rookie.

Happily, Mullins has since gone on to enhance his stock with aplomb, and Heskin has seized his opportunity brilliantly. The 23-year-old is a proper rider with a big future, and, in Fleming, Connell appears to have identified a handler capable of ensuring that he gets ample opportunity to excel.

This guy could be the final, crucial piece of the jigsaw. A native of Blessington in Co Wicklow, Fleming failed to progress in his initial stint as a trainer on the Curragh. The 38-year-old, though, is possessed of considerable ambition.

In 2008, he applied for a job as private trainer to Andrew Wates in the London hinterland of Dorking, close to Gatwick. He made an immediate impact with a select string, enjoying great success with Starluck, which he saddled to be fifth in the 2010 Champion Hurdle.

Little more than a year after that notable feat, Fleming, who had learnt his trade with Ted Walsh and Oliver McKiernan, announced that he was to leave Wates. He felt that he had outgrown the confines of the yard and needed to look elsewhere if his career development were to continue its upward trajectory. "I want to expand, find a bigger yard and get more horses," Fleming said at the time. "I want to try to better myself and to do that I have to take big decisions." That's fighting talk.

Fleming's hiatus lasted over four years. Maybe he was waiting for the right offer, but it seems he finally got it last year, when he agreed to return to the Curragh to operate as Connell's private trainer.

Much like JP McManus, Connell has hitherto spread his riches around, and many of his team remain with their original trainers. You suspect, though, that Fleming will now be increasingly charged with overseeing his horses.

He saddled just a handful of runners in the autumn of 2014, three of which hit the post by finishing second. This year, Fleming has been little short of a revelation.

He has farmed 22 wins in 2015, and sits sixth - ahead of the in-form Noel Meade - in the current season's trainers' championship.

From 48 runners, he has 17 winners, seven seconds and eight thirds, which equates to 67pc of his runners. From his last 30 starters, he has produced 13 winners, with six of his last eight collecting.

The serious business is upon us, and Fleming has had a treble at Naas and doubles at Listowel and Punchestown, Marakoush and Tully East winning in style at the latter venue on Saturday.

Having opted to streamline his operation, then, and notwithstanding the skills of his other existing handlers, there is a sense that Connell is beginning to get some perceptible value for his money on a consistent basis. He and Fleming seem a neat fit. We are still in the realm of potential, of course, but Connell's shrewdest signing might yet prove to be his trainer.

Byrnes' Dawn rises for Geraghty

Charles Byrnes' JP McManus-owned Shanpallas was pulled up by Barry Geraghty in Saturday's Paddy Power Gold Cup but the trio did plunder a win with Leave At Dawn.

Well supported into 7/2 favouritism for the two-mile-five-furlong handicap hurdle, Leave At Dawn improved for his reappearance fourth at Galway to draw clear up the Cheltenham hill. It was the second Irish-trained victory at the meeting following Josies Orders cross-country triumph on Friday.

Gordon Elliott drew a rare Prestbury Park blank, though he did get among the winners at Wolverhampton, where Dove Mountain won at 6/1 for Tom Queally. Denis Hogan also enjoyed a successful foray to the Midlands all-weather venue. His Burren View Lady was backed from 10/3 into 13/8 favouritism for the apprentices' sprint handicap and duly collected under Donnacha O'Brien.

It would prove to be an unusually frustrating weekend for Elliott. He ended up with six seconds, having departed Clonmel on Thursday with half as many runners-up.

Nickname Exit, his only runner at Cork yesterday, looked to have battled its way to victory under Keith Donoghue in the beginners' chase. However, the 6/4 favourite Toushan rallied late for Roger Loughran to cling him on the line by a nose.

"That was coming for a while but I don't mind waiting as long as they come," smiled the winning trainer Tom Foley. "I thought he was beat, and Roger said he idled when he hit the front."

Joe Dullea has made a fantastic start to his training career. The young Bandon, Co Cork-based handler's flag-bearer is the redoubtable Damut, which made light of the testing going to dot up in the handicap hurdle at his local track.

"He was very impressive and surprised me how easy he won," Dullea said after the 5/1 shot's fourth win on the spin. "We'll find something for him around Christmas time. We'll have to consider races like the Boylesports Hurdle now."

Dullea's fellow west Cork native Brian Hayes also continued his fine run of recent form by driving All About Alfie (14/1) to victory in the handicap hurdle. Trained to its three flat wins by Foley, All About Alfie is now handled by its Carlow-based owner Tom Donohue.

Champion trainer Willie Mullins and Paul Townend enjoyed a short-price double courtesy of a pair of promising hurdling newcomers Bleu Et Rouge and Bellshill, while Stephen Mahon's Champagne Harmony (7/1) backed up its debut Galway win by taking the bumper under Finny Maguire.

New rules for Weld's Forgotten

Dermot Weld has indicated that his Group Two-winning stayer Forgotten Rules is being schooled with a view to going hurdling.

The Moyglare Stud-owned five-year-old was beaten just over a length when third to Trip To Paris in the Gold Cup at Royal Ascot, but failed to build on that in three subsequent starts.

Weld told trade paper The Irish Field that Forgotten Rules would probably begin his jumping career at Leopardstown over Christmas, and reiterated the plan to run Moyglare's Free Eagle in the Cup or Vase in Hong Kong on December 13.

Tweet of the weekend

Will Kennedy (@WTKJockey)

If I couldn't win The Paddy Power, for me there was no one more deserving of a big race win than @ianpopham #OneOfTheGoodGuys

In-form Newbridge, Co Kildare-born Will Kennedy tips his hat to popular weigh room colleague Ian Popham after his Paddy Power Gold Cup win aboard Annacotty on Saturday.

Numbers Game

98 Age at which Clem Magnier died on Saturday. Originally from Fermoy in Co Cork, Magnier was a hugely influential dual-purpose trainer during stints in Co Tipperary and Co Meath. He saddled Overshadow to win the 1953 Irish Grand National. He was also a multiple Cheltenham winner whose dual Festival hero Albergo won the 1960 County Hurdle, two days after finishing second in the Champion Hurdle. Magnier's son Colin is the last amateur rider to win the Champion Hurdle on For Auction in 1982.

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