Spirit strikes gold for O'Neill
Jonjo O'Neill may not have been keen on having Channel 4's 'Morning Line' cameras prying around Jackdaws Castle on the morning of the first major steeplechase handicap of the season at jumping's headquarters yesterday. However, he may already be composing a return invitation after his feather-weighted John's Spirit battled on gamely to land a gripping renewal of the historic Paddy Power Gold Cup in front of a record 35,000 crowd.
Jonjo had already won the race as a trainer in 2006 with Exotic Dancer and in turn managed to scratch the seven-year itch aided by a coolly accomplished ride from Richie McLernon. McLernon, 27, elected for tactics of maximum patience as he jumped his horse off plum last of the 20 runners over the first obstacle. Needing to pass every rival to win, he did just that with time to spare.
The race was conducted at a predictably intense gallop, led in turn by Irish challenger Hidden Cyclone and Easter Meteor – and both leaders were still heading affairs descending the hill with just four to jump. John's Spirit had, meanwhile, threaded a path through the field and arrived tanking on the outside – while Colour Squadron flanked him going equally well on the inner. But it was the second last fence that effectively decided the race. Hidden Cyclone was beginning to crack under the strain, while Easter Meteor ran down the fence and knuckled on landing.
This hampered Colour Squadron which was tracking him, losing that horse crucial momentum, and by then the Spirit had flown. The isolated leader began to idle but was kept going sufficiently to always suppress Colour Squadron's vain late flourish. O'Neill's first reaction was to praise the jockey "It's brilliant for Richie – he's a top jockey, a great horseman and a good man to have about the yard."
The praise was reciprocated by the jockey who revealed that his guv'nor was happy to let him ride his own race. "I am lucky that I ride for Mr O'Neill who always fills me with confidence. He lets me do whatever I want." On the subject of his chosen path he declared: "I went wider than ideal – I thought they would give us a bit of fresh ground today but they didn't and the fences are narrow enough. If I went down the inner I would have got blocked in, so I went wide and thank God he won."
Jackdaws Castle has never had such an auspicious start to the season, leaving Jonjo to reflect: "I don't want to start counting my chickens. It's nice when they're running like this and we'll have a good celebration and enjoy things tonight – although JP (McManus, owner of runner-up Colour Squadron and patron at Jackdaws) might review the rent now . . . but I hope not!" Besides O'Neill, it was red letters for another local trainer, Fergal O'Brien, who recorded his biggest ever success as a trainer when Alvarado – the outsider of his two runners – won the Grade 3 Murphy Group Handicap Chase under another stalking ride from Paul Moloney.
In the near three-and-a-half mile contest Moloney was still only fifth jumping the last, and, following the "wait, wait and then wait again" principle, only delivered the horse he described as "very quirky" half-way up the famous run-in. Limerick-born O'Brien supplied Bradley – the third in the race – for good measure, as well as completing a double on the card when his filly The Govaness scooped the concluding Listed mares bumper at 28/1.
Remarkably, in producing 31 winners so far this season, the yard (by mid-November) has already surpassed its previous best-ever total. As former assistant to Nigel Twiston-Davies, the "ex-Twister" was planning a considerable celebration in the Hollow Bottom last evening.
If the past is any form of guide, the opening pair of races on the Cheltenham card are likely to prove extremely instructive. The three-mile novices' chase has been won in the past by horses like Albertas Run, Comply or Die, Earth Summit and Bradbury Star and the line-up for yesterday's event looked well up to standard on paper.
Le Bec has improved markedly for a switch to fences and you can see why to look at the Emma Lavelle gelding in the paddock. He jumped beautifully yesterday and held off the late challenge of joint-favourite Shuttherfrontdoor, himself a horse with a big future.
As for the juveniles, the ex-Aidan O'Brien-trained Royal Irish Hussar laid down a marker for next March as he seeks to follow the likes of Katchit and Katarino, previous winners of the JCB Triumph Hurdle Trial on yesterday's card. His new trainer Nicky Henderson was pessimistic yesterday, expecting his Galileo acquisition to be found out by the sterner opposition. "I was all doom and gloom – it's a long way from where he started at Market Rasen". Winning rider Barry Geraghty remarked: "I would say the first two are the best of what's around so far."
The road to Cheltenham has already found its origins – at Cheltenham.