Thursday 20 September 2018

Meade has earned Respect and this year it could be payback time in the Cotswolds

Trainer Noel Meade
Trainer Noel Meade

Eamonn Sweeney

One way of looking at this year's Festival is as a tale of three trainers. It's eminently possible that Willie Mullins, Gordon Elliott and Nicky Henderson will saddle more winners than everyone else put together. But there is another trio of trainers whose stories could end up being just as fascinating as those of the triumvirate at the head of affairs.

Noel Meade had his first winner before Ireland joined the EEC. He is the man who dominated Irish national hunt racing before Willie Mullins came along. Given that Mullins seems to have been on top forever that makes Meade seem practically prehistoric.

Yet while all the attention has been on Mullins and Elliott and to a lesser extent Jessica Harrington and Henry de Bromhead, something remarkable has been happening with Noel Meade in the last couple of years. He's getting his second wind. Last season Meade had 57 winners, almost doubling his score from the previous term. It was his best return since 2011/2012.

This season he's already had 48. He also has the chance to crown a glorious career with his biggest ever win. Road To Respect looks a genuine Gold Cup contender, a winner at last year's Festival who was extremely impressive when beating a top-class field in the Christmas Chase at Leopardstown.

It's an extremely open renewal. Might Bite is favourite yet there is an eccentric streak to him, his bizarre veer off course after the final fence in last year's RSA Chase sticks in the mind. Native River looked very good on his return to action at Newbury last month and has done little wrong over the past year. Our Duke's win in the Red Mills Chase at Gowran Park was a reminder of his awesome performance in last year's Irish Grand National. Definitly Red looks a great value outsider after his win in the Cotswolds Chase in January. Yet I still have a feeling for Road To Respect.

If he is to come through there would be a certain irony about it. Because Cheltenham has not been particularly kind to Meade. He has just five Festival winners, a moderate return for a man of his standing. In 2007, when he was at his peak with 102 winners in Ireland, he drew a blank. Famously in 2010 Go Native went into the Champion Hurdle with a chance of winning £1m by completing what was termed the Triple Crown of Hurdling. He came tenth.

More agonisingly still, in 2005 Harchibald was beaten a neck by Hardy Eustace in the Champion Hurdle after being given a ride by Paul Carberry which still sparks controversy. You feel Cheltenham owes Noel Meade one. Were Road To Respect to win on Friday, it would be one of the great Irish Festival triumphs.

By comparison with Meade, Pat Kelly seems to be all about Cheltenham. Two years in a row he's enjoyed success at the Festival, Mall Dini winning the Pertemps Hurdle in 2016 and Presenting Percy repeating the feat last year. Now Presenting Percy is favourite to win the RSA Chase and complete a three-in-a-row. He's even being talked about as a Gold Cup contender in 2019.

At a time when smaller trainers are being squeezed out of the game, Kelly is a throwback to a more egalitarian era. When Mall Dini triumphed he had only seven horses in his yard, had sent only two other horses to Cheltenham, neither of which had finished, and hadn't won a big race since a couple of Galway festival wins in the mid-1990s. Now he too is on the verge of his biggest ever triumph. The main opposition will be provided by Henry de Bromhead's talented Monalee, which walked away with the Flogas Novice Chase at Leopardstown and the big English hope Black Corton, trained by Paul Nicholls.

I think the Galwayman will prevail. He also has a good chance in the Kim Muir Chase with Mall Dini. Kelly is, to quote the tagline of a great '70s heist movie Charley Varrick, The Last of The Independents. Or one of them anyway. Because it'll be also worth keeping an eye out for Burning Ambition which is favourite to win the Foxhunters Chase on Friday.

The horse is trained by Pierce Power, a point-to-point specialist with a small yard on the Hook Head peninsula in Wexford. He has engaged the services of Jamie Codd, who was as impressive as any jockey at Cheltenham when scoring a couple of victories last year.

Someone said to me recently, "They're always going on about the American Dream, what's the Irish Dream?" I don't know but I suspect for quite a few people the idea of someone like Kelly or Power watching their horse win at Cheltenham comes close.

Dream baby dream.

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