Thursday 22 February 2018

Midnight Chase to push more fancied rivals all the way

Neil Mulholland's dark horse can challenge for Gold Cup glory, writes Ronan Groome

CHELTENHAM always throws up a story of unlikely success, and there is no reason to suspect that this year will be an exception. Perhaps it may even come in the form of trainer Neil Mulholland and horse Midnight Chase.

Co Antrim native Mulholland was a journeyman jockey in the UK not so long ago, and has the scars to prove it -- having broken both his legs, his left collarbone five times and his right collarbone twice. Pinned and plated, the man has nearly more metal in him than bone.

Just two days after Imperial Commander outstayed Denman to win the Gold Cup in a titanic battle up Cheltenham's iconic hill last year, Midnight Chase was hard at it to hold on to win a class four beginners' chase at Fontwell.

A year on and this pair have the potential to go to the very top of jump racing, and on Friday week they will give it a real go. The term 'dark horse' is often bandied about heading into the Festival, but Midnight Chase looks like the black beauty of dark horses in the Gold Cup.

People began to get excited when he won at Cheltenham in December. Although only in a handicap, his performance was that of a very good horse. He made a bad mistake three out which should have put paid to his chances, but he battled on up the hill under a big weight to grab the lead from Howard Johnson's Presenting Forever, conceding 17lbs. He has not been seen since that run, and the general price of 16/1 after that performance has stayed rock solid in the market.

"He's a better-ground horse so there was no point running him in January or February because that can knock a horse's confidence," said Mulholland. "Ability is obviously the most important thing, but confidence plays a big part as well."

Although only 30 years of age and not yet through his third season as a trainer, it's clear to see that Mulholland has gained a wealth of experience already. There was always the odd point-to-pointer or hunter around when he was growing up back home in Glenavy. He was just 12 when he went down to learn his trade at Aidan O'Brien's, where he eventually went on to serve a three-year apprenticeship.

He rode 65 winners in his time in Ireland, the most significant of which was Call Me Dara in the 2000 Paddy Power Chase for trainer Robert Tyner, before going on to seek more opportunities across the sea. "In Ireland, every year you get a couple of good conditional jockeys, but once they ride their claim out you might not hear of them again because all the big jobs are gone and it's so hard to get a stable jockey job over there," reflects Mulholland. And so he travelled around Britain working for trainers such as Ferdy Murphy and Micky Hammond. All nice people, nice to work for, but none ready to offer him a complete breakthrough.

"You have to realise after a while that you're not going to be champion jockey," Mulholland explains. "Fifteen to 20 winners a year doesn't even make you a living and when you're older you lose the appetite for it. I wanted to train horses."

He eventually took up a stable jockey and assistant trainer position to Paul Keane. And when Keane wanted to opt out of training horses, his business partner at the time, Liz Harrington, asked Mulholland to take over. Now based on a farm rented to him by the Pipes at Pond House, Mulholland's team have the luxury of using the same facilities as those used by David Pipe.

It's interesting that Mulholland was actually the first jockey to ride Midnight Chase, in a maiden hurdle at the Perth festival in April 2007. The son of Midnight Legend wasn't expected to do much: he was only brought because there happened to be room in Keane's lorry on the day. The instructions were to ride him around easily and not give him a hard race, that if he finished top six it would be a good result. He won the race and that was the first indication of the horse's ability.

The next season he went on to win four handicap hurdles in a row, and ended up finishing second at odds of 100/1 in the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockey's Hurdle at the Festival, the first bit of evidence of the way the horse seems to click around Cheltenham better than anywhere else. He has now won on his last four starts at Prestbury Park.

The nine-year-old gelding has improved 38lbs on official ratings since the first of those four wins. Indeed the undulations around the Cotswolds seem to bring out the best in him, and only reigning champion Imperial Commander will have a better record over fences at the track.

For Mulholland it's a dream to even have a horse in the race, let alone a horse which has a chance. "And he does genuinely have a chance," says the trainer. "Our lad is going up, while the others could well be going down."

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