Saturday 20 January 2018

Duke's special wish for a triumph that's beyond wonderful

Brendan Duke is hoping Mister Benedictine can become the feelgood story at Ballybrit this year, as he tells Aisling Crowe

Tales are woven around the Galway Festival, a unique week's racing with the potential for epic stories every day.

A horse which has been reborn in a new home and a trainer starting over after suffering severe financial woes could get the chance to create a glorious chapter in the story of their new lives in Thursday's Guinness Galway Hurdle.

Racing has suffered because of the economic collapse and Brendan Duke felt the harshest effects of the nuclear winter. Financial trouble meant he had no choice but to relinquish his training licence and leave his home in Lambourn.

When he came back to Ireland last year, it was difficult to readjust as so much had changed in the time he had been in England. Angela, his fiancée, gave up her job to move to Ireland and quickly adjusted. Duke, on the other hand, felt isolated, despite the support of friends Jim and Jackie Bolger for whom he had worked for 20 years and of Curragh neighbours Dermot Weld, John Oxx and Martin Brassil.

"Angie had friends within a couple of weeks and she settled in like she had lived here forever and ever. I didn't feel that way but I love The Curragh and I decided to hold tight here, Mister Benedictine would win first time out and we'd hang fire," Duke explains.

Duke bought Mister Benedictine as a three-year-old from William Muir. The diminutive horse has the heart of a lion and always fought hard in his races but three victories were all his first career with Duke yielded as he was trapped in the grip of the handicapper's vice.

The horse was meant to move to Ireland but this plan fell through. The pair were reunited in September last year when Duke heard he was for sale and convinced his brother Joseph to give the horse a chance. Mister Benedictine has been rejuvenated by his new life on The Curragh and a protracted break from racing for the first time in his career.

"He was to come back to Ireland with me last year and that didn't happen and he slid down the handicap ratings and for some reason, I'm not sure why, he came back to me the end of September and he just had a fun three months. He never saw the Curragh gallops. I didn't start training him until January."

He brought the horse to Ballinrobe for a handicap hurdle on May 29 and, for the first time in four years, he won. That victory planted a seed in his mind of a return trip west for a bigger prize so Kilbeggan was proposed as the ideal place to test his Galway credentials. He ran and won and went back a second time and repeated the trick, much to his trainer's delight.

"I brought him back to Kilbeggan and he absolutely bolted up. He was his real young self and his jumping was breathtaking. He was in front half a mile out which was far too early but he was just so much better and he won really easily."

Mister Benedictine will be ready to run the race of his life on Thursday afternoon but so too will his jockey Dave Crosse. Leading jockey Noel Fehily is putting Crosse through a gruelling training schedule to have him at peak fitness for the Galway Hurdle. Fehily relays daily progress reports from Lambourn on Crosse's fitness regime. With the stakes so high, it comes as no surprise to learn that Fehily and Duke are tough trainers.

"I'd the jockey on the phone yesterday asking me could I hear how breathless he was? I said, 'I'm not impressed that you can even talk, you shouldn't be able to talk, you're not doing enough'. Noel had him out cycling up and down hills. We are going there to try and make this happen, leaving no stone unturned."

Everything is in place. Now all Mister Benedictine needs is for two horses to be scratched from the race so he can take his chance to shine. His trainer knows he is ready.

"His work is electric, I couldn't be happier with him. He has improved considerably since the last day in Kilbeggan. He is coming into full bloom in his coat, he looks beautiful, his exercise has been amazing. It's incredible how well he is going."

Eight days after the Galway Hurdle, he and Angela are due to be married. Mister Benedictine returning in triumph to the winner's enclosure would be the perfect wedding gift.

"There would be less than 15 people on the planet that would really know what this would mean to me and it's quite humbling really for me, a Dubliner from Crumlin, when I think of the people who have won this race, the legends of our sport, the great horses of our sport, to be in with a chance of emulating them. There is so much at stake here for myself and it would mean so much that it's absolutely fantastic to have a chance of it. It would be beyond wonderful if he won."

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