A critic once described Bundini Brown as someone who would “take the dimes off a dead man’s eyes and put back nickels”.
Cheltenham’s bookies were faithful to the spirit of Muhammad Ali’s famous old sidekick yesterday, their vampiric instincts sated on a rare
Festival day that failed to deliver a single favourite back into the winners’ enclosure.
Envoi Allen, at 13/2, was the shortest-priced success, the old valley turning prematurely dark under bloated, inky skies, and any notion of trying to out-smart the market coming to feel like a one-way ticket to pauperism.
But consolation lay in the fact that, mercifully, there are two parallel worlds here.
Ordinarily, only a good day for the bookies opens the door for small yards to announce themselves as players in this environment and, for John McConnell, Seddon’s success in the Magners Plate Handicap Steeple Chase carried all the beauty of something imagined from a great artist’s palette.
Sometimes this place feels as if it’s got its hands around your throat – and that was McConnell’s impression when Mahler Mission went tumbling at the second last in Tuesday’s National Hunt Cup, a first Festival victory looking just seconds away for the Stamullen yard.
“In those 10 seconds afterwards, what goes through your mind is I’ll never have a winner at Cheltenham,” he reflected as the rain spilled down. “Little did I know it would come so soon.
“I’ve been dreaming of this since I was five!”
McConnell is a Kildare man, a qualified vet who practiced for seven years before deciding that the only life that could fulfil him was one involving horses. He will never be one of the heavyweights of this domain but, increasingly, he’s begun landing the kind of blows that gets a man noticed by those who count.
“I’m a chancer,” he joked after Seddon’s win, his self-deprecation just drawing knowing smiles.
McConnell had had four Festival third-places since 2013 – and won enough pots elsewhere to identify himself as anything but. So if this was a surprise to him, it wasn’t to many of those who have been paying attention.
“It means everything,” he told us. “I was always going to be too heavy to be a jockey so, from an early age, I was going into training.
“My folks at home will be on the floor after this.”
He’s almost missed the formalities of the enclosure, taking time to check on the well-being of his other horse in the race, Hereditary Rule, before arriving late into a welcoming throng almost on the verge of reporting a missing person.
Doubt can be ruinous in this game if you entertain it, but McConnell doesn’t much sound like a man susceptible to maudlin introspection.
“I’m not from racing stock,” he stressed. “I would class myself as an outsider. We would have bred thoroughbreds on a small scale at home, but we were nearly out of that by the time I was 10 or 11. I would have done a lot of pony club, show jumping, eventing and stuff.
“I loved racing all along. Michael O’Brien trained right beside us, and I would have ridden out for him a couple of summers. I loved working there, he was a great trainer. Even when I did veterinary, the one thing on my mind was that I always wanted to train.
“It sounds pathetic, but I just love horses.”
McConnell’s primary instinct on being mobbed was to talk up young Ben Harvey, the Naul pilot who’d guided Seddon up the hill.
Referring to Harvey’s five-pound claim as a conditional rider, he all but told us that his jockey should be riding in a balaclava.
“It’s the greatest robbery having Ben able to claim that,” said McConnell. “He’s going to lose it very quickly – and will be a top, top jockey.
“Because he’s got everything, he can see a stride a mile away. And he’s got a clock in his head too, great intelligence. Gordon Elliott’s using him a bit now, too. To be honest, I feel like Southampton with Van Dijk and Liverpool are circling (laughing).”
You can tell why McConnell and Harvey are compatible given the jockey, too, is a man who wears his talent lightly.
Understated and well-spoken, he spoke of being worried by the ground yesterday morning “But once I jumped off on that horse, all those worries were gone.”
Thereafter his description of the race suggested an exercise as undemanding as driving a car on cruise control.
“All I was thinking was ‘Hold onto him as long as I can. Don’t kick!’” said Harvey. “There’s no point over-complicating it. I wasn’t too aware of what was going on around me, I was just hoping I had enough horse left to get me up the hill.”
Turned out he had that. And more.
Much the same applied to Benburb’s Liam McKenna, who outran a cavalry charge up the hill on Tony Martin’s Good Time Jonny to be a 9/1 winner of the Pertemps.
McKenna is 27 now, and someone Martin believes fate had been broadly unkind to. A first cousin of Tyrone’s All-Ireland winner, Conor McKenna, his career path has been consistently potholed by injury and mishap.
But the talent within has always been self-evident.
A long journey of rehab after breaking his collarbone culminated in a
Galway Hurdle win in his first ride back. But about a month after that, he broke a cheekbone and eye socket while riding in Listowel.
McKenna’s way is to talk about such misfortune with the quiet equanimity of a man who believes that fate has been largely fair in her dealings with him.
“The highs have been very high, so I’m happy with it,” he stressed.
“When you’ve Tony Martin and Colm Murphy to go in and ride out for – and knowing what they can do with the horses that they have – it’s well worth persevering.
“Physically it’s fine (coming back from injury), there’s not much physical pain to it. It’s the mental pain of watching horses running that you could be riding and winning. Obviously, that gets to you. But you’re focused on getting back so you’re not thinking about too much else.
“I’m used to coming back from injuries and it’s grand, it’s just when you’re not on the horses that’s the hard thing.”
As for Good Time Jonny’s win, McKenna didn’t summon a single line that sounded conceited or self-serving.
“When I couldn’t get to the position that I wanted, my plan was just to try and collect as much prize money as I could,” he said flatly. “The plan was not to get to the front too soon but I was riding for prize money and, when it came my way, I was able to take it.
“I got a massive buzz out of it, because I’ve had an up-and-down season. But we’d a Galway Hurdle winner and now a Cheltenham Festival winner, so I don’t think things can get much better than what they are now. I’m just delighted for it all to work out.”
Someone suggested that he was proving himself a man for the big occasion, but it was like inviting Gandhi to brag.
“I try my best!” said young Liam McKenna of Benburb. Not an ounce of chance that his head was gone with the glory.