Comeback kid Sweeney hoping to make Cheltenham history aboard Salsify
COLMAN Sweeney is hoping to write another chapter in his remarkable life story as pride and joy Salsify prepares to defend his crown in the CGA Foxhunter Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.
One of Ireland's leading amateur riders and winner of the Foxhunter Chase aboard the Paul Nicholls-trained Sleeping Night in 2005, Sweeney's riding career appeared to have come to an abrupt end in the spring of 2010.
Partnering Turtle Gale in a Tipperary hunter chase, Sweeney suffered a horror-fall at the third last fence, with his mount kicking him in the head and leaving him unconscious on the turf.
While a brain scan that night showed he had escaped serious injury, a couple of failed concussion tests meant the young rider had all but given up on race riding and his weight soon ballooned.
A year on from his Tipperary nightmare and a six-year-old named Salsify, trained by his father Rodger and owned by his mother, Joan, burst on to the hunter chase scene with notable victories at the spring festivals at Fairyhouse and Punchestown under Richard Harding, a long-time friend.
Sweeney said: "Salsify was the sole reason I came back. My father told me I couldn't let my last ride be a fall and I had a lot of support from my wife and my mother, everyone really."
Despite weighing close to 14st in December 2011, Sweeney lost weight quickly and had his first ride back on Salsify's seasonal reappearance in a Dromahane point-to-point on New Year's Eve.
The pair were beaten a neck by one-time smart performer Footy Facts and Salsify was pulled up in a hunter chase at Thurles next time.
Sweeney said: "I had to lose a lot of weight before Christmas to get to ride him and I got down to 11st 5lb on New Year's Eve.
"He disappointed at Thurles, but he still had a lot of condition on him then."
But victory at Leopardstown in February booked his ticket on the boat to Cheltenham.
On the big day Sweeney rode a super-cool race, coming from last to first with his mount staying on gallantly up the famous hill to beat the Nicholls-trained Chapoturgeon by a length.
There was an understandable outpouring of emotion as the jockey yelled Salsify's name on returning to the winner's enclosure and he admits even a year on he can scarcely believe a seemingly impossible dream came true.
"I can't describe it. It was probably the happiest moment of my life," he said.
"I was roaring Salsify on the way in and even my father said I got a bit carried away!
"In three months I'd gone from being basically being retired to riding a winner at the Cheltenham Festival. It's the stuff of dreams really.
"With the horse being trained by my dad and owned by my other as well, that made it all the more special and it's a story you couldn't make up if you tried."
Salsify is set to return to Prestbury Park as favourite in his bid to become the seventh dual winner of the Foxhunter Chase and the first back-to-back scorer since Double Silk (1993 and 1994).
Although beaten by Tammys Hill on his first two starts of the season, Salsify exacted his revenge on his rival by getting up close home at Leopardstown.
"I definitely wouldn't be swapping our horse, that's for sure," said his jockey.
"We were delighted to see him go and do it in Leopardstown.
"I don't think our lad had been written off, but people were definitely thinking Tammys Hill was the new kid on the block after he beat us twice, so it was nice to go and get back on top.
"It's even better we managed to beat him on soft ground, as we know our horse will be better when he gets on some better ground, hopefully at Cheltenham.
"We left a bit to work on with him. The worry going into Leopardstown was that he'd have too hard a race on the soft ground, but he's come out of it nice and fresh, which is great and I think he'll improve for it."
Sweeney will make history if he does triumph on Gold Cup day, as no jockey has ever won the Foxhunter Chase three times.
"We're going for a bit of history there. Hopefully we can do it," said Sweeney.