Cyclone can give 'Shark' chance to swim with bigger fish
Hanlon eager to join elite club of trainers to win a Grade One, writes Richard Forristal
At Punchestown tomorrow, John 'Shark' Hanlon will strive to join an increasingly elite club that has welcomed just a solitary new member in all of the past two jump seasons to date.
By their very nature, Grade One riches are the preserve of a select few. Despite the list of majors having grown to in excess of 30 in the past couple of years, though, Willie Mullins' incredible level of sustained domination means that they are harder than ever to win.
When the champion trainer's Ballycasey crashed at the second-last while still in front in the Powers Gold Cup on Easter Sunday, it simplified Rebel Fitz's task considerably. By passing the post ahead of the only other finisher, Barry Geraghty's classy mount elevated Mick Winters to the top table.
The brilliantly eccentric Kanturk, Co Cork-based handler was the first new name to graduate to such exalted company for over two years.
Peter Casey, no less colourful a character, was the last to be promoted to the highest echelon when Flemenstar's memorable Arkle Chase triumph in January 2012 prompted an interview that was very soon immortalised as part of live TV's modern folklore.
Expect something similar – if less unparliamentary – should the man known as 'Shark' become the third successive trainer of a distinctly agricultural bent to break new ground. Hidden Cyclone has been a clear favourite for the Boylesports.com Champion Chase since the market opened.
The apple of his larger-than-life handler's eye, he nearly raised the roof in the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham in March only to be cruelly thwarted by Tom Scudamore's exquisite steer on Dynaste.
A day before Lord Windermere's Gold Cup heroics for Jim Culloty's similarly unheralded stable, it felt as if one of the great romantic Cotswold fairytales had just been stolen from under our noses.
"It was one of the highlights of my life, and to have one of the highlights of your life and still be disappointed is hard to explain," Hanlon chuckles with his unmistakable booming guffaw.
"It was a thrill to be there, and for a small trainer to finish second in any Ryanair is a big day. But we just got run out of it by Dynaste.
"Even though my horse got beaten, he probably got a bigger cheer than the winner afterwards. The Irish crowd in Cheltenham are amazing. It was some day."
Victory would have constituted a welcome throwback to the halcyon days of Danoli, Imperial Call, Dorans Pride, Newmill, Brave Inca and Sublimity.
Defeat ultimately just meant more heartache for Carlow-based Hanlon and the Mee family who had trusted his judgment in forking out €21,000 for the gelding as an unbroken three-year-old at Tattersalls Derby sale in 2009.
Sired by Stowaway, which stands at Whytemount Stud – whose owner Ronnie O'Neill bred Hidden Cyclone and Hanlon's partner Rachel – the nine-year-old was completing a frustrating treble of Grade One seconds.
Each was a gallant defeat in its own right, but it's a dubious honour to be vying for Forpadydeplasterer's patent on the nearly horse tag.
Incidentally, when Hidden Cyclone recorded his sole win since November 2012 at Listowel, it was Forpadydeplasterer that he beat.
"If any horse in the country deserves a Grade One, it's him," Hanlon says passionately.
"He has been some horse. He has run 20 times, won 10, been placed in seven and was only out of the first three on three occasions, when my horses were sick."
"I have no other horse like him – he's unreal."
In a way, last month's Prestbury Park roller-coaster reflects Hanlon's career and Hidden Cyclone's evolution. A converted cattle dealer, the Bagenalstown handler burst on to the racing scene in 2007. The ravages of Foot and Mouth had left him seeking an alternative to cattle, and annual domestic tallies from 2007 of 11, 15, 17, 19 and 36 constituted a resounding vindication of his new vocation. Then, all of a sudden in 2012, the music stopped.
Hanlon had weathered the economic storm to fashion a rapidly expanding new business in the heart of rural Ireland, but sick horses don't win races.
He shut up shop to get them right, before signing off on the year with a paltry six winners. The initial dizzy ascent exaggerated the sense of deflation.
Racing is a precociously fickle game. Hanlon went out of fashion, but he refused to accept his lot.
Hidden Cyclone, which had made a successful bumper debut under Brian Hayes at Gowran Park in April 2010, was the horse that kept the dream alive.
Just eight months later, he had finished third to First Lieutenant in the Grade One Future Champions Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown, further strengthening Hanlon's resolve to train him like a Gold Cup horse until he told him otherwise.
"It's funny the way horses go," he muses. "We are dropping back now from nearly two miles and five furlongs at Cheltenham to two miles for Punchestown, but I'm not worried about the trip.
"If anything, the twice he has run over two-five at Cheltenham, I was wondering would he get the trip. He finished second over two miles at Leopardstown at Christmas, and that was a cracking run."
For all his consistency, Hidden Cyclone still has something to prove at this level.
He hasn't quite developed in the way that his youthful precocity suggested, but tomorrow's €200,000 feature, in which the old warhorse Sizing Europe will keep him honest, represents a golden opportunity.
It is no less a gilt-edged window for Hanlon to show that he can yet fulfil all of his early potential.
Along with Hidden Cyclone's near misses, his initial flag-bearers Luska Lad and Western Leader – which is pencilled in for another unlikely comeback in Saturday's charity race – also hit the crossbar in Grade Ones. Hanlon is keenly aware of what it would mean to join such exclusive ranks.
"It would be huge for the yard, and the closer it gets, the more exciting it gets," he admits.
"Punchestown is one of the biggest meetings of the year in Ireland, so for a small yard like ours to go there with a chance in the Champion Chase is huge. It would be a dream come true to win it."
Victory would be popular with the floating voter, as jumping's enduring allure has always depended on its ability to throw up rustic, everyday personalities for heroes. Hanlon, an underage goal 'shark' in his native Kilkenny with a distinctive shock of red hair and a gregarious demeanour, fits that bill.
He has emerged from his 2012 slump, with 10 Irish winners, four in Britain and six on the point-to-point circuit already a fine haul for the current term.
Maybe most importantly, as a stockman, the renewed confidence and increased yield has facilitated a welcome return to the markets.
"I was a cattle dealer all my life," the 48-year-old says bluntly, "so I never had a man to buy a beast until I had it in the yard.
"It's a little bit like that with the horses, but for a couple of years I wouldn't have been financially able to go to the sales and buy the young horses that you need to keep the thing going.
"Last year I was able to go the sales and buy some nice horses, and I will go again this summer.
"Like so many others, we are down in numbers, but it has got to the stage now where our quality has improved.
"We have a better class of horse here now, but you have to put your neck out, buy them and try to get people in then to take them. If you can do that, you have a fighting chance."
That's all anyone can ask for, and tomorrow Hidden Cyclone will have as much when he lines out in the marquee event under Andrew McNamara. Fate will decide the rest.
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