Sunday 19 August 2018

Balnaslow to keep Peggy's dream burning at Festival

Punchestown’s Champion Hunter Chase was the setting for an epic duel between Balnaslow (right) and Mendip Express, from which Balnaslow and Derek O’Connor emerged victorious by a neck.
Punchestown’s Champion Hunter Chase was the setting for an epic duel between Balnaslow (right) and Mendip Express, from which Balnaslow and Derek O’Connor emerged victorious by a neck.

Aisling Crowe

Cheltenham's field of dreams provided Antrim woman Peggy Hagan with her best day of racing in her 90 years of living last March. Her horse, Balnaslow, was fifth in the Foxhunters' Chase but for Peggy, surrounded by her children and grandchildren, watching her horse race at Cheltenham, it was perfection.

This year Balnaslow returns to the Cotswolds from Antrim but sadly without Peggy, who passed away in November. Her family and trainer Graham McKeever are keeping the flame of her dream burning bright through Balnaslow.

The 11-year-old provided them all with a memorable spring of 2017 contesting the spring festivals' champion hunter chases. After his Cheltenham fifth, Balnaslow tackled Aintree's fearsome Grand National fences in that track's hunter chase and was second, but the best was yet to come.

Punchestown's Champion Hunter Chase was the setting for an epic duel between Balnaslow and Mendip Express, from which Balnaslow and Derek O'Connor emerged victorious by a neck.

"It's unbelievable the thrills he has given us all," says McKeever of Balnalsow, "but Punchestown beat all. It was just brilliant and Mrs Hagan was in full flight."

It was a homecoming for Balnaslow when McKeever purchased him at the Goffs UK sale in September 2016 with Derek O'Connor, who works for the sales company, egging the owners on to bid for Balnaslow with assurances that the horse would win for them. The gelding started his racing career with Graham's father Colin for Wilson Dennison, renowned for his nursery of young horses at Loughanmore in Antrim that has produced Grade One winners, including Yorkhill, Shaneshill and Bellshill.

Like that trio, Balnaslow left Northern Ireland for the yard of Willie Mullins after winning his point-to-point at four and while he may not have scaled the peaks of his compatriots, he put in some big performances on the main stage, including third place in the Galway Plate and fourth in the Kim Muir at Cheltenham.

That fondness for an audience is a trait that hasn't left Balnaslow as McKeever attests.

"He seems to light up when he gets to the big meetings. In the parade ring beforehand he's like a two-year-old, bouncing on his toes with his head tucked into his chest. At a point-to-point, he just does what he has to do and at home he is a quirky bugger, but having dad's experience of him as a younger horse is a big help with him."

Home is now Parkgate, 12 miles north of Belfast and the stunning beaches of the Antrim coastline have been utilised in preparing Balnaslow for his tilt at Friday's Foxhunters' Chase. Magnificent White Rocks is only a 45-minute drive from McKeever's yard and although spared the worst ravages of the Beast from the East, hard frost made the gallops unusable so it was into the lorry and off to the sand stretch on the coast for Balnaslow.

Balnaslow's preparations for Cheltenham have been less than ideal because of winter's vicious bite, with December and January snows affecting the gallops.

"He is fine, rested and fit, ready for his return to action but he hasn't enjoyed the best of preparations as the weather has been pretty bad. We've done bits and pieces with him and Derek schooled him around Leopardstown on Friday so he is ready to travel over on Tuesday."

Derek O'Connor enjoyed his biggest day on a racecourse at Leopardstown in February when winning the Grade One Irish Gold Cup with the miracle horse Edwulf. Trainer Joseph O'Brien and owner JP McManus announced last week that the brilliant amateur would retain the ride on Edwulf for Friday's Gold Cup, the race which precedes the Foxhunters. The dream of a unique riding double is very much alive.

The weather could yet hold another sting for Balnaslow as the after-effects of the snow leaves Cheltenham's ground softer than he prefers to race on. However, the horse has decent form on soft ground in Ireland and his audience awaits.

"He is not getting any younger and we have to get him to Cheltenham," says McKeever, who also trains Chosen Dream for Peggy Hagan. He will wait for Punchestown and an attack on Balnaslow's crown. "Peggy was a very lucky owner to have Balnaslow and Chosen Dream, who has won 11 times for us so far. Her daughter Margaret Simpson and son Jamesie Hagan took over looking after her horses and they are going over to Cheltenham again this year. Family was such a big part of it for Peggy."

There will be plenty of footage during the week featuring the teams of horses Ireland's largest trainers have at the Festival, but Balnaslow is one of just 10 horses that McKeever has riding out at the moment. Six of those are young horses beginning their careers which McKeever hopes can win their point-to-points so he can sell them to big trainers whose owners have dreams of Cheltenham winners.

That is how National Hunt racing works. The point-to-point handler nurtures the young horses, unearthing their talent so that trainers can buy them for owners with dreams of winning big.

Balnaslow may be at the other end of his career but for McKeever, for Peggy Hagan and her family, he carries their hopes and dreams of Festival glory.

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