Sometimes the size of the fight in the underdog counts
It was a big Cheltenham for the little guy. A bunch of trainers who normally toil far from the limelight while the glittering prizes go elsewhere beat the big battalions to enjoy a finest hour in the Cotswolds.
Could there be a more heart-warming victory than John Kiely’s with A Dream To Share in the Champion Bumper? The 85-year-old will celebrate his 50th anniversary as a trainer next year. He’d been coming to Cheltenham without success since 1976.
The Dungarvan veteran had a good feeling about A Dream To Share. “This fella has surprised us,” he said last weekend. “It’s a young man’s game when it comes to travelling but I suppose I better go this time because we might not ever again have a horse like this.”
This horse was good enough for JP McManus to buy from TV racing pundit Brian Gleeson after it won at last month’s Dublin Racing Festival.
That raised a tricky question. In previous races A Dream To Share was piloted by Brian’s son John, an 18-year-old Leaving Cert student who went to Kiely’s stable every morning before school to ride the horse. With so much at stake, would the new owner stick with the kid?
He did. This left the even trickier task of beating Willie Mullins. The Champion Bumper is Mullins’ great speciality. He’d won it a dozen times, was seeking four in a row and saddled the favourite, Fact To File, alongside a plethora of other contenders.
The teenager bided his time early on. Two furlongs out he made his move and with one furlong left he took the lead. Fact To File was there to challenge him but in the last 100 yards A Dream To Share proved stronger and won by a length and a quarter.
Mullins was second. And fourth and fifth and sixth and seventh and ninth and tenth. But this was the hour of the two Johns, young Gleeson and old Kiely, who quipped afterwards, “The horse is named well.”
It wasn’t just Gleeson’s first win but his first race at the Festival. On Thursday evening Tipperary jockey Pa King made his debut aboard Angels Dawn in the Kim Muir Chase. King was grateful to be there at all. “I was probably nearly at the end of riding because things had got very quiet for me. Then I joined Sam and I’ve not looked back since.”
That’s Sam Curling from Goolds Cross near Cashel. He’s married to King’s first cousin Zoe. A former work rider for Aidan O’Brien, Curling trains horses for point-to-points where future stars are often discovered. “We buy and sell horses,” he says, “and that’s our game. You get as big a buzz watching them go on and win for someone else.”
Curling has just six horses in National Hunt racing. One is Angels Dawn, who battled mightily to overhaul the Gavin Cromwell-trained favourite Stumptown in the final few strides and win by a neck. Immediately behind were horses trained by Mullins, Gordon Elliott and Henry de Bromhead.
One horse Curling sold on was Marine Nationale who he describes as, “always one of those special types of horses.”
The buyer was Barry Connell. A Dublin stockbroker who’d never sat on a horse till he was well into his 30s, Connell became a jockey good enough to ride winners at Cheltenham in his late 40s. He became a trainer four years ago and set up stables in Kildare.
Like Kiely, Connell believed he’d found a special horse in Marine Nationale for this year’s Cheltenham. “I’ve never had a horse like him, I just think he’s different. I might be wrong but at the moment we’re all dreamers in this game.”
An unbeaten 2022, which culminated with victory in December’s Grade 1 Royal Bond Hurdle at Fairyhouse, placed the horse among the favourites for the Supreme Novices Hurdle. He too would be partnered by a young and little-known jockey.
One day, a 21-year-old from a dairy farm outside Mallow, Michael O’Sullivan, rang Connell and asked to ride one of his horses. Connell was so impressed by the young man’s performance he suggested he turn pro and ride all of them. On Tuesday Connell’s faith was justified as O’Sullivan swept Marine Nationale past the Mullins-trained favourite Facile Vega on the run-in to win by three and a half lengths.
O’Sullivan was emulating his father William, who in 1991 won the Foxhunters’ Chase on Lovely Citizen, owned and bred by Michael’s grandfather. The UCD Animal Science graduate from Cork and the Dublin Don Quixote whose dreams have come true make quite a team.
Connell took just four years to break his Cheltenham duck. Meath’s John McConnell has been trying for two decades and “dreaming of it since I was five.” Four times the former vet had seen his horses finish third.
On Tuesday his moment finally seemed at hand with Mahler Mission four lengths clear two out in the National Hunt Chase. When the horse fell at the second last, McConnell might have wondered if his day would ever come.
Seddon, a 20/1 shot in Thursday’s Magners Plate, seemed an unlikely candidate to change his trainer’s fortunes in a race where Mullins, De Bromhead and Paul Nicholls had leading contenders.
He only arrived in McConnell’s yard last August after being bought by the Galaxy Horseracing Syndicate from North County Dublin. Derek
McGeehan, who helped found Galaxy in 2017, has described it as comprising “professionals and buddies who just love horse racing. A few sales people, two chefs, a pro golfer, an accountant, a solicitor, etc.”
In October the horse provided Galaxy with a first ever jumps victory when winning at Cheltenham. That triumph proved a good omen for Thursday’s race where the outsider took the lead two out and stayed on to win by two lengths. On board was Dublin jockey Ben Harvey, who turned professional just three months ago. Like McConnell, Galaxy, Kiely, Gleeson, Curling, King, Connell and O’Sullivan, this was his first Festival victory.
The headlines and the big race wins went to the big names last week. Yet we’ve always had a special grá for the underdog in this country. Perhaps particularly in racing where it accounts for the legendary status of Danoli, Monksfield, Limestone Lad et al.
Overcoming the discrepancy in resources between themselves and the giants of Irish racing gets tougher all the time for our smaller stables. Sometimes the task must seem impossible.
But on some special days the size of the fight in the stable turns out to matter more than the size of the stable in the fight.
All hail the Irish underdogs. Long may they run.
Kearns had rare gift for giving the lesser lights a chance to shine
One hundred and eight years; 81 years. A manager dealing with those kinds of numbers has history against him. But Liam Kearns, who died this day last week at the age of 61, relished battling against overwhelming odds.
It’s a measure of Kearns’ impact on Limerick that he briefly made it seem like a football county. His was one of the most underrated modern managerial achievements. It climaxed in the drawn 2004 Munster final against his native Kerry. Three times in the closing stages Darragh Ó Sé plucked down long-range Eoin Keating frees which would have given Limerick a first title since 1896.
In the replay Limerick led by seven points after 20 minutes but lost by four, a controversial penalty helping a Kerry team which went on to win the All-Ireland. The previous year the underdogs had missed two penalties in a five-point final defeat by the same opposition.
A dozen years later Kearns won his battle against the big numbers when Tipperary’s shock victory over Galway put them in a first All-Ireland semi-final since 1935. A shock momentarily looked on the cards against Mayo, but it eventually ended in a gallant five-point loss.
Once more Kearns had shown a rare gift for getting the best out of unfancied teams and players. History’s underdogs have had few better champions than the Austin Stacks man.
Cycling looks set for a special year of fierce rivalry
When Slovenia’s Tadej Pogacar became the youngest Tour De France winner for over 100 years in 2020 and won again in 2021, a decade of domination seemed likely.
Then along came Denmark’s Jonas Vingegaard to win last year’s Tour and suggest one of the sport’s great rivalries might be in the making. Last week Pogacar struck first blood with an easy win in the Paris-Nice stage race, where his rival only finished third. But this year’s Tour route, which includes all five of France’s mountain ranges, may suit Vingegaard.
Looming in the background is the phenomenal 23-year-old Belgian Remco Evenepoel who last year became just the fourth rider to win the World Championship, a Grand Tour (the Vuelta) and a Monument (Liege-Bastogne-Liege).
Meanwhile, Belgium’s Wout Van Aert and Holland’s Mathieu van der Poel should continue their fierce rivalry in the one day classics. A monumental year lies ahead for the world’s toughest sport.