‘Shark’ brewing up a storm
If a rare variety of outcomes in next Friday's Lexus Chase at Leopardstown have the potential to revitalise the lot of home-grown Gold Cup prospects, one stands out above all others as a sure-fire tonic on a more individual level.
At the Foxrock venue's 2011 Christmas Festival, Hidden Cyclone was the first leg of a double for his larger-than-life Bagenalstown handler John 'Shark' Hanlon.
Having also formed part of a Leopardstown brace for the rapidly rising outfit that January, the exciting son of Stowaway's clinical beginners' chase victory neatly bookended a calendar year that yielded an incredible 40 Hanlon winners at home and abroad.
For a man who saddled his first winner only four years earlier, everything looked set fair for 2012. Inexplicably, though, the wheels fell off as the New Year chimed in.
"I'm after having a disaster of a year," Hanlon admits frankly ahead of Hidden Cyclone's date with destiny in the Lexus.
"The horses got sick in January, so I didn't run much in the spring, and then we got no summer.
"I had spent a lot of money on Flat-bred horses last year to run during the summer, but I didn't even get to run half of them, because it never stopped raining. That's the kind of year it has been."
Hanlon didn't train a winner in 2012 until May. Having defied the whims of the recession to make a name for himself in his new vocation after the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease brought his career as a cattle dealer to an abrupt end in 2001, this time it was a mere throat infection that undermined his livelihood.
Hidden Cyclone isn't immune from such innocuous strains. Back at Leopardstown at the end of January, he was conquered for just the second time in his life when Sir Des Champs and Fists Of Fury outgunned him by a length-and-a-quarter.
Ostensibly, it was an honourable defeat, but those closest to him weren't so sure.
He had beaten the runner-up easily before and, despite being last off the bridle, he didn't respond to Andrew McNamara's urgings when asked to pick up on the run-in.
If anything, his run petered out, and that wasn't like him. It was the straw that broke the camel's back; Hanlon got the vets in, identified the problem and closed shop.
After saddling 24 beaten dockets in January, he sent out just 16 runners over the next two months. They battened down the hatches, but six wins in recent months, including two of the straightforward variety for Hidden Cyclone in the Poplar Chase at Naas and a Gowran Park conditions event, indicates a return to form of sorts.
"The saying goes," Hanlon confides, "that you're only as good as your last winner; when you're having winners, you get new horses, but when you're not, you don't, so it would be great to finish the year on a positive note with a win in the Lexus."
To even be talking in those terms is typical of this inherently upbeat, ambitious character, a red-topped gentle giant whose jovial demeanour has endeared him to his adopted profession.
A Kilkenny native whose eye for goal in underage hurling led to the 'Shark' moniker, Hanlon's family's long friendship with the Mullins clan of Goresbridge helped him get a foothold in the racing game.
He drove a lorry for George and worked on the yard for Tony, and now he faces the prospect of toppling one of Willie's best horses if he is to secure a landmark debut Grade One victory with Hidden Cyclone. Sir Des Champs might have emerged on top in round one, but Hanlon is refreshingly forthright about the rematch.
"When Sir Des Champs beat us, my horses just weren't right," he says, "but we still weren't far away. If things go right next week, I think we should nearly be beating him.
"I'd certainly be happy to take him on any day again, but I do know we have to improve as well – even though I think we have.
"That's why I was anxious to get a couple of runs into him this season that would bring him on without killing him."
Flemenstar, whose Dublin handler Peter Casey also hails from an agricultural background, is the horse everyone is talking about. Hanlon is no different.
"This is the best Lexus I have seen in years," he says. "According to the handicapper, we have 20lbs to find on Flemenstar.
"If the Lexus were a handicap, we'd be a good thing, but taking on all these horses off level weights is different.
"It's a long time since Ireland has had staying chasers with so much quality. If you take Nicky Henderson's horses (Bobs Worth and Long Run) out of it, we have the best of them."
For all that things have improved considerably for Hanlon of late, life has taken on a somewhat different reality.
His numbers clock in at about 50pc of the 70 that used to be stabled at his Fennis Court stable little more than a year ago, with a renewed emphasis on buying and selling point-to-pointers to help keep the thing ticking over.
Hidden Cyclone, though, has been a beacon of hope throughout. Hanlon has had good horses like Luska Lad and Truckers Delight before and he bagged a famous Kerry National triumph with Alfa Beat in 2011, but this fellow is different gravy altogether.
Bred in nearby Whytemount Stud by his partner Rachel's father Ronnie O'Neill, he caught the stockman's eye as a foal.
"It's amazing, you see something in a horse in the field," Hanlon says almost wistfully before trailing off. He vowed he would train the youngster one day, and duly picked up the phone to Michael Mee on the afternoon that he was due to go through the ring as a four-year-old at Tattersalls in June 2009.
The Mees had Truckers Delight with Hanlon already and trusted his judgement. He told Michael that the rangy, handsome gelding could cost anything between €20,000 and €50,000, but that he would be worth every cent.
Mee told him to buy, and a final bid of €21,000 soon looked shrewd business.
In 10 starts since making a winning debut under Brian Hayes at Gowran Park in April 2010, Hidden Cyclone has been beaten only twice, and the winners of those races, First Lieutenant and Sir Des Champs, both went on to win at the Cheltenham Festival.
Hanlon, though, has treaded far more cautiously with his mud-lover, opting to give Cheltenham a wide berth and taking an admirable long-term approach with a horse he describes as a "big, old-fashioned chaser that should be coming into his prime".
"I haven't over-faced him up to now," he explains. "I wrote off last year because the horses were sick, but I've always had two things in my favour; Stowaways improve as they get older, and I had owners who were willing to let me take my time.
"I said to them after Hidden Cyclone won his bumper that, if ever we were going to have a Gold Cup horse, this was it.
"From that moment until now, I've trained him like a Gold Cup horse, and the dream lives on – it might fall to pieces in the Lexus, but I don't think it will."
A festive litmus test awaits, then. Just six more sleeps to go.