Tuesday 23 April 2019

Cromwell's finest hour as Espoir D'Allen tears up Champion Hurdle script

Small Meath yard crushes the training giants on a day of rain and upsets in the Cotswolds with Walsh securing another big-race prize for McManus

Mark Walsh celebrates on his way to winning the Champion Hurdle with Espoir D’allen. Photo: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images
Mark Walsh celebrates on his way to winning the Champion Hurdle with Espoir D’allen. Photo: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Gavin Cromwell's grin has a bemused, almost goofy quality as he's asked to explain the audacity of what Espoir D'Allen just did in this rain-sodden English valley.

Five year-olds, after all, don't win Champion Hurdles. Only Katchit broke that mould since 1985 and, well, in the mind's eye this was a race for the Broadway horses, for the English champion going to war with those two precocious Irish mares. Cromwell does the farrier work for his friend, Gordon Elliott, and put the shoes on Apple's Jade last week.

As he sees it, he'll always do "the really important ones" himself.

He shod Don Cossack before the 2016 Gold Cup win and fully expected Apple's Jade to give Elliott a similarly tumultuous win here. Espoir D'Allen? He gave that shoeing job to one of his lads, Cathal Tuite.

So this wasn't any great, calculating act of piracy. They thought, with luck, the horse might run into a place. That the race could educate them.

Then Buveur D'Air fell at the third and, well, the two mares began to run as if in quicksand.

And from there? Everything started to happen a little too quickly for him to parse and structure much of it now. But Espoir D'Allen was suddenly moving better than anything in the field. Nicola Walsh, who'd led the horse up, wheeled away from the big screen, unable to watch as they came to the final turn.

"One of the girls eventually said, 'You're ok, you can look now...'" Nicola turned to something unimaginable, Espoir D'Allen 15 lengths clear and halfway up the hill. "Then they just all screamed at me, 'Run, run...," she laughs, her eyes still ablaze.

Fixated

In the parade ring, Cromwell, too, could scarcely believe his eyes. "To be honest, I had no idea he was going to go and do that," he smiles now. Every preview night had fixated on three superstars and the giant yards they represent. Whether you put your trust in astrologers or gypsies' heather, this just wasn't meant to be.

A context?

In Gavin Cromwell's first nine seasons training horses, he managed the grand total of seven winners over jumps. He was the blacksmith trying his luck at everything. Buying and selling. Speculating. Chasing a thousand fragile dreams.

His father, uncle and grandfather were all point-to-point men and that's the environment in which he spent his childhood. He had two summers as a teenager working for the late Dessie Hughes, then another one with Ben Hanbury in Newmarket. After finishing his Leaving Cert, he went back to Newmarket, spending nine months with Paul Kellaway.

Then it was Australia for a year before failure to get a visa persuaded him to come home and get a farrier's apprenticeship. The trainer's licence was taken out in 2005, few enough really seeing it as anything other than a hobby.

The farrier work flourished and, soon, he was even running an apprenticeship of his own. Having once lived with Elliott, it was natural he'd shoe his horses too. That was Cromwell's life-choice, his destiny. But then his horses began to win. Jer's Girl gave him his first Grade One success under Barry Geraghty at Fairyhouse three years ago. One month later, they won again at Punchestown.

In 2017, he trained a virtually prehistoric Raz De Maree (aged 13) to win the Welsh National. He won a Group Two Flat race in France. Word was getting around... the farrier had more than just one string to his bow.

Geraghty, a Meath neighbour, was behind JP McManus's decision to put horses in his Balrath yard. A lot of people expected McManus to win his eighth Champion Hurdle yesterday. Just nobody thought it'd be with the horse trained by Gavin Cromwell.

"Can't put it into words," the trainer says gently. "What do you say? And to do it so well?"

He mentions his mother, Angela, who passed away in November, how she loved her racing and, voice now trembling slightly, how "it would have been brilliant for her to be here". Had she been, she'd have seen her son's 16/1 shot come up the hill like a stag, 15 lengths clear of a 20/1 shot Melon.

Someone wonders aloud if he might now have more glamorous plans than farrier work for the rest of his life. After all, a Champion Hurdle winning yard isn't commonly run as a hobby.

"Look, Ireland is full of talented trainers, better trainers than me," he says categorically. "If they got the horses, they'd be well able to train them. I have about 45-50 in the yard, but you'd need about 145 to make a living out of training!"

Cromwell wasn't alone in welcoming the rolling shelves of cold, grey rain that came pounding the valley in mid-morning. Because the changing ground changed things for so many. Willie Mullins (right), after all, won the first two races when, just a couple of weeks back, he'd begun to think he'd be coming here with his flimsiest string in years.

Trouble

For Cromwell, the sound of rain drumming on the window pane seemed more relevant for how it might impact on others than his own. "I thought it might inconvenience some of the others," he says before counselling us against anyone painting this story as some kind of workhorse upstaging stallions.

Last Christmas 12 months, Espoir was ante-post favourite for the Triumph Hurdle before running into trouble and never making it to the Cotswolds. His only defeat was subsequently explained under forensic.

"I know five-year-olds don't have a good record in this race, but we just thought he might learn something and, potentially, come back next year," says Cromwell. "But he's a very, very smart horse and the only day he was beaten he was wrong. He won every other day and never had a hard race.

"But look this is just shock, pinch yourself stuff. I couldn't believe it when I saw Apple's Jade starting to come a little bit under pressure."

With two of the three catwalk stars gone from the picture, Laurina was the only billboard presence left. But Ruby Walsh's mount soon began treading water too and, suddenly, all those weeks of speculating and imagining seemed such waste of air.

As Mark Walsh, a two-time Festival winner now, explains: "I followed Ruby all the way round. Ruby missed the third and my fellow just took me there, could feel him in my hands. I couldn't believe how well we were going to be honest. He's only a five-year-old, but he took me everywhere, jumped great.

"I thought there was a horse going to the last. I only noticed after the last it was a loose horse (Buveur D'Air)."

When he and Cromwell had spoken beforehand, their words were anchored to a realist's charter. In fact, Cromwell's simple instruction was: 'Let him enjoy himself...'

No-one imagined that one of the hottest Champion Hurdle fields would be blown so utterly asunder. And now?

"The way he did it, he may be hard to beat for the next few years," smiles Walsh boldly.

It isn't in Cromwell's gift to speak with that kind of brazenness, but he didn't need to be told that this was a life-changing day. When Raz De Maree won that Welsh National, they brought him to the two schools in the area and maybe this one will need to be paraded down Navan's main street.

Brazenness

Cromwell came to Cheltenham with two horses, one of which - Quantamental - didn't make the Fred Winter cut. His good friend, Elliott, arrived with a huge army, yet slipped back down into the town last night without a win.

Benie Des Dieux, most people's banker, came crashing down at the last when seemingly home and hosed in the Mares' Hurdle. And Buveur D'Air, Apple's Jade and Laurina didn't even manage a place between them in the marquee race.

It was that kind of day in the old place. And a small yard crushed the giants.

Watch: A first Cheltenham winner for Rachael Blackmore as A Plus Tard shows his class

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