Sunday 21 January 2018

Kennedy shines in new order at Festival

Elliott victories change the script as Mullins and Walsh draw a rare blank on opening day

Jack Kennedy celebrates winning the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle on Labaik ahead of Melon, with Ruby Walsh up, who finished second, at Cheltenham yesterday. Photo: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Jack Kennedy celebrates winning the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle on Labaik ahead of Melon, with Ruby Walsh up, who finished second, at Cheltenham yesterday. Photo: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

That sound rolling up out of the old valley last night was the audacity of revolution, with Gordon Elliott at the heart of it.

Three winners on a first blank Tuesday in eight years registered by both Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh translated in many minds as a changing of the guard. Elliott after all travelled over already strongly positioned to end Mullins's decade-long reign as champion Irish trainer, but the victories of Labaik, Apple's Jade and Tiger Roll yesterday dramatically shortened the odds on him succeeding the Closutton maestro as the main man here too.

And if victory in the Mares' Hurdle by one of the 60 horses taken out of Mullins's care by Gigginstown became the obvious headline story, maybe Elliott's gift was communicated best in the opening Supreme Novices' Hurdle.

At a press-conference yesterday morning, young Jack Kennedy was so downbeat about Labaik's prospects he might have been talking about a mule with bad colic trying to sprint up that Cheltenham hill. The horse had failed to jump off on its last three starts, eventually finishing two furlongs behind the field on its last run at Naas, forced into a kind of adolescent sulk with only Kennedy for company because to walk in again, registering a third refusal, would have led, inevitably, to a ban.

"Clearly has temperament issues" read the race card.

"He's a monkey" cautioned Elliott.

Young Kennedy wasn't arguing. "It's 50/50 if he'll jump off," he told us. "If he did, he's a fair horse and he'll run a big race. But I wouldn't be getting my hopes up about him jumping off!"

Highly-strung All the stories of Cheltenham are essentially one story in the end. A standard screenplay of trainer and jockey, together, finding the possibility in a highly-strung thoroughbred. Labaik came here with a middle name of 'Trouble', Elliott himself worrying about the "embarrassment" of another non-start. He'd even suggested to the owners that Naas on Sunday might, at least, offer them all a gentler landing.

But 'Mouse' O'Ryan was having none of it. They'd take their chances, even with a horse entirely capable of turning his back on the race.


Because they all knew, Elliott, O'Ryan, Kennedy even, that if only Labaik got away with the field, he might just treat them to a run for the ages. And that's pretty much what the truculent, odd, sometimes dilettante grey gelding did, giving young Kennedy his first Festival win at a neglected 25/1.

It was an essay in calm race-riding from the fresh-faced Dingle boy who, naturally, then chose to amend his story.

"Secretly, I thought he would jump off, but I didn't want to be jinxing myself," he said with a gentle smile after. "So I decided I wouldn't say much about him."

Elliott believes young Kennedy (17) could get a tune out of a dyspeptic goat and everything about his control of Labaik suggested that he just might. They sent Ian 'Busty' Amond down to watch the start, just for the reassurance of having another Elliott body there if the delinquent in the horse found surly expression again.

And, waiting, it was as if you could hear the whole place ticking.

"I told Jack just jump him off wherever you are and just creep away, creep, creep, creep," said Elliott after. "Ride him to be placed. I said getting him away was all I wanted, I didn't care after that."

Yet, once away and running, expectations for Labaik catapulted into another world.

At the bottom of the hill, Ruby had the favourite, Melon, positioned perfectly. But Labaik came sweeping through like he'd seen a snake in the birch, Kennedy finding time to stand up in the stirrups and wave his whip like a conductor with a baton as they passed the winning post. It seemed appropriate.

"Can you believe it?" someone asked Elliott when it was over.

"Of course I believe it," he replied a little snappily. "I've always said how good he is. He's a machine of a horse to work. If he jumps off, he's a machine.

"To be honest, they can use a long whip to give it a crack at the start here and I think when he heard it he went. You can't in Ireland.

"Listen, it just worked out for us. He hasn't jumped off in his last three runs, but to jump off today makes up for them all. If he never jumps off again, it doesn't matter."

For Kennedy, then, the world keeps turning to his bidding. He was nine when riding his first winner on a pony and just two weeks past his sixteenth birthday when registering his first under Rules for Pat Flynn. It took him just 366 more days to ride out his claim and, now, the Grade One victories are already accumulating.

At this pace, injury-permitting, this young man can become just about anything he chooses.

His style is to chat in easy, sleepy-eyed understatement about the impact he's now having in the game.

In one pre-Festival interview, he recalled the leg-break that sidelined last September as "only my fibula". Tell that to the footballers who go down with injuries to their hair.

When asked the key to getting Labaik to settle, Kennedy - naturally - told us there were no mysteries.

"There was nothing," he said. "Just changing things up at home and trying to sweeten him up, just put all the different little things together. That's it. But there was nothing really. There's nothing you can do with a horse like that other than try and keep him sweet."

Which is pretty much what Bryan Cooper did with Apple's Jade in the Mares' Hurdle, delivering a 7/2 pillar-to-post victory despite being coursed almost every step of the way by Mullins's two big hopes, Limini and Vroum Vroum Mag.

Afterwards we witnessed a gentle, perhaps uncomfortable, show of amity between the ever-dignified Mullins and Gigginstown boss Michael O'Leary.

Mullins: "Well done Michael!"

O'Leary: "Willie, thank you very much, three great mares..."

Mullins: "I thought we had you turning for home."

O'Leary: "So did I sadly!"

The events of the day had to taste bitter as a crab apple for Mullins, but his natural grace survived the heavy shelling. He has seen Elliott come from a distance out as the big challenger to his throne, but the loss of Gigginstown's business has clearly tilted the arithmetic significantly.

And there seemed something rather deliberate shortly after 5pm when O'Leary chose to walk into the enclosure with arm around Elliott just after Lisa O'Neill had guided Tiger Roll to a 16/1 win in the JT McNamara National Hunt Novices' Steeplechase. Until yesterday, Gigginstown had never had a Tuesday win at the Festival. Now, in a tumultuous half an hour, Elliott had given them two.

Giddiness Another highly-strung member of his string, it had taken maybe three fences for O'Neill to curb the giddiness in Tiger Roll - a former Triumph Hurdle winner - but, once she did, they looked the class of the field.

"He was very free with me early on," agreed the 30-year-old from Garristown. "So I was just wondering if he would finish it out well. I think he was taking the mickey out of me because he was lovin' it so much."

Her words offered yet another reminder of why, for most of us here, we might as well be staring at nautical charts as trying to figure out form. Two of Elliott's winners were horses with an instinct to pick an argument. They needed - above all - to be humoured before they'd race.

"I'll have a pint tonight and enjoy it," he told us, darkness falling. He'd earned it.

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