Sunday 19 January 2020

Making the grade

After a breakthrough year at Cheltenham and Fairyhouse, young trainer Paul Gilligan is hoping to bring his impressive form home to the racing festival closest to his heart, writes Richard Forristal

After the year Paul Gilligan has had up to now, you might think the summer months would afford him an opportunity to sit back and bask in the glory of what went before. The Galway native hit the big time in 2010, confirming on the grandest of stages what the domestic scene has been privy to for some time.

In March, Gilligan ventured boldly into the fabled Cotswolds of Cheltenham. The Craughwell trainer had never before saddled a runner at jump racing's showpiece event, and had but one target.

As the world watched, in the curtain-raiser to one of the most eagerly anticipated Cheltenham Gold Cups of modern times, Berties Dream propelled the 36-year-old into the limelight by storming to victory up the famed Prestbury Park hill -- a first Cheltenham Festival runner, a first Grade One winner. Berties Dream may have been a 33/1 shot, but Gilligan hadn't travelled from the west coast of the country on a whim.

For good measure, a fortnight later Jadanli secured him another of the sport's biggest prizes by galloping through the Fairyhouse mud to sluice up in the Powers Gold Cup.

Two weeks, two Grade Ones, but there's no rest for the wicked.

Gilligan is facing into the busiest week of his year. The racecourse at Ballybrit is just 12 miles from the converted family farm on which he trains, and he has prepared a large team of hopefuls for the seven-day bonanza. There may be no Grade Ones on offer, but that doesn't mean it matters any less.

"Galway is the biggest festival of the summer," he says, "and it's close to home, so you want to do well there -- it's all anybody talks about for weeks beforehand.

"It's not a meeting you can go into saying you're going to win with a number of horses -- you're just hoping. Everything that's going there will have been trained especially for the week, and you're just hoping you come away with a winner."

It's only natural that the Galway Festival would still mean so much to Gilligan; it was where he first fell for racing's charms as a child, it was where he had his first ever runner as a trainer and, in 2007, it was where he endeared himself to local punters by saddling three winners and three seconds from six runners.

His high-profile successes in the spring might have taken him to another level, but that brings its own pressures now too. "The thing is," he explains, "I'm probably expected to have winners at Galway now. We've been lucky there in recent years and, with the way things went earlier in the year, people expect you to do well at home.

"I could have 12 or 14 to run if they all get there in one piece, so you're just hoping for a bit of luck. They have been in good form on the track lately but, like I say, if you could come out of it with just one winner, you'd be happy."

In an interview prior to last year's Festival, as Gilligan spoke of how the seven-day gala was the most important week of his year, an innocuous aside revealed something of the depth of his ambition. "Hopefully, some day, we'll have a Cheltenham horse to be talking about," he mused, "but we can do nothing about that until we get one."

Twelve months on, that he now has one proven Cheltenham performer, and another, Jadanli, which he hopes might develop into a Gold Cup prospect, tells you something of his year. Not to mention the speed at which he is moving through the ranks.

Still one of the young achievers in the game, the unassuming father of four young boys is training little more than 10 years. He has saddled just shy of 50 winners, while last season's tally of 18 was his best yet. For someone who hails from a non-racing background, those are giant strides.

His father Eamonn happily swapped a small dairy herd to indulge his son's passion for the game, and is now a fully signed-up devotee himself.

Indeed, Jadanli is family owned, and so moved was Paul by the horse's Fairyhouse win that he declared it meant even more to him than the Cheltenham heroics.

Time hasn't changed that either. For him, to bring that little piece of joy to his kinfolk is untouchable, just as it is when they share in the unmitigated fervour of success among their own at Ballybrit. Bragging rights are not to be sniffed at, and Gilligan, infectiously energetic, isn't the type to rest on his laurels.

"A lot of wealthy owners spend big money on horses and never have a Cheltenham winner," he reasons. "It's something money can't buy. We were lucky to do it with our first runner with an inexpensive horse, and then for Jadanli to win at Fairyhouse was unbelievable.

"The thing for us now, though, is to try and keep it at that level. You have to work at it -- you get out of it what you put in. To be winning those big races is what every trainer wants, so they don't come easy."

Next week, in their own way, every race is a big race, though some would be more cherished than others. On Wednesday, Nintytwoteam, the first leg of Gilligan's breakthrough 2007 treble, is bound for the Galway Plate.

Incredibly, the horse has returned from an injury that sidelined him for two and a half years. Owned by the Hurl 'N' Ball syndicate that is headed by Tony Kilkenny, who hurled on the Kiltormer team that achieved All-Ireland club glory in 1992, Nintytwoteam ran out a facile winner of his prep race last month.

It would be a fitting home-grown denouement to Gilligan's remarkable year if he were to score again on Wednesday.

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