Friday 19 April 2019

Cromwell is becoming a man for all seasons

Gavin Cornwall with his Champion Hurdle winner Espoir D’Allen. Photo: Mark Cranham
Gavin Cornwall with his Champion Hurdle winner Espoir D’Allen. Photo: Mark Cranham

Daragh Ó Conchúir

The flat season gets under way at Naas today and what a fantastic job Tom Ryan, Dermot Cantillon and their team at the Tipper Road track have done in picking up the slack during the Curragh's redevelopment.

Barring direct involvement though, it can often be difficult to get the juices flowing for flat racing, coming as it does nine days after the conclusion of the Cheltenham Festival and with Aintree, Fairyhouse and Punchestown still to come.

Yet there are clear Cheltenham links with today's action. Take, for example, the most successful jockey in the history of the Festival, Ruby Walsh, taking part in a six-furlong maiden on Castletownshend, owned by his mother, Helen, and trained by his father, Ted.

It will be the 12-time champion's first ride on the flat since getting the leg up on Renneti in a premier handicap at Leopardstown on the opening day of Irish Champions Weekend, in September 2017.

Newly-minted Champion Hurdle victor Gavin Cromwell is a much more regular figure on the level. His initial imprint on public consciousness came when Balrath Hope garnered the Ulster Oaks in 2012 and Sretaw, the Irish Cambridgeshire two years later.

Political Policy was also a valuable servant, winning eight times at Dundalk before getting off the mark on the turf and then turning his hoof to hurdling, a sphere in which the eight-year-old has prevailed twice to date. And we can't forget Princess Yaiza bagging Group Two honours in the Prix de Royallieu at Longchamp on Arc weekend last October.

Cromwell has been operating at a 22 per cent strike rate on the all-weather so far in 2019, with four winners from 18 runners. One of those winners, Ciao, carries his hopes in the Irish Lincolnshire and must be treated with respect.

"It's a little bit unknown whether she'd handle the ground but she's going in there off the back of a good win and is obviously in good form," is the trainer's assessment of the four-year-old, which only has 8-13 to carry and has the considerable assistance of Chris Hayes in the plate.

Cromwell's flat string stands at around 15, with a few more dual-purpose operators to supplement that group. Notably, the majority of his group are juveniles. "We worked eight two-year-olds on the grass this morning," he said on Thursday evening.

"There's another couple there having little breaks, so we have 10 or 12 two-year-olds and hopefully the majority of them will run as two-year-olds. We've a few early enough ones. Hopefully we'll get them out in the next few weeks."

That number will be added to via the breeze-ups, with a trip to Newmarket for the Craven in just over three weeks already pencilled in.

Meanwhile, Cheltenham hero Espoir D'Allen has moved from Danestown to his owner JP McManus' Martinstown Stud in Limerick, having done more than enough to earn his summer holidays.

"There is no need to go to the well again, particularly as a five-year-old with hopefully a lot more racing ahead of him and maybe, given his age, a bit of improvement too."

Cromwell describes the events of that Tuesday afternoon and since as "surreal" and is deeply appreciative of the mountains of messages received since. A party is in the process of being organised but the nature of racing is that you must look forward - today is just another example of that. But he doesn't mind reflecting.

"All the statistics were against us. There's no point in thinking you can be bullish going to Cheltenham with a five-year-old and thinking you can give seven pounds to the likes of Apple's Jade, with the season she's had and she's a phenomenal mare. I'm not a dreamer.

"You were giving seven pounds too to Laurina, who's a very good mare; and then to be taking on Buveur D'Air, who had won the Champion Hurdle for the last two years. So from that point of view, we were going there not feeling any pressure in that they were the talking horses and we were more or less forgotten about."

The plan was formulated with jockey Mark Walsh to bide his time and pick up as many pieces as possible. There was one significant slice of luck that he was wide of Buveur D'Air when he came crashing down and avoided being an unwitting victim. From there, it was plain sailing as Espoir D'Allen sailed past the tiring trailblazers to put Cromwell in a group that includes all the greats.

But the wheel keeps turning and he would like to return to Cheltenham with more than one championship hopeful in years to come.

His desire to farm valuable prizes isn't confined to jumps though. A man for all seasons.

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