Traditionally, March is a quiet month for us with runners in Ireland, and this weekend fits the bill, as I have only three rides over the weekend, and Willie just five runners. The horses are being prepared for Cheltenham, and we just don’t have many to run.
I’ll be heading to Navan this afternoon for one ride, and hopefully she will deliver. Bargy Lady is the one I’ll be on, and she has been found what looks a good opportunity in the second race, the mares’ maiden hurdle.
She comes here after a good run at Leopardstown, where she finished runner-up to Toe The Line. In fact, she ran very well over hurdles behind Montana Belle on her previous start, and even the form of her fourth-placed finish behind Forge Meadow on her jumping debut reads well in light of what the winner has since achieved.
She has just come up against a good mare every time she has run, and this looks her best opportunity thus far. She should handle the ground, has plenty of experience under her belt, stays well, we think she’s in good form, so, hopefully, my only ride today will be a winning one.
Willie runs three in opening race tomorrow at Leopardstown, but they have all been off the track for a considerable period. Bonbon Au Miel, which I ride, and Aurko both came from France with big reputations, but have had a lot of issues, and Diakali has been off the track since being a beaten favourite in the 2015 Galway Hurdle.
It’s a fair sum when you add how many days they have been off, so it’s fair to say they have been three of the more problematic horses in Closutton. Without having had a serious injury, Aurko (off for 1170 days) and Bonbon Au Miel (892 days) have had enough to delay their appearances for a considerable amount of time.
I ride Bonbon Au Miel because he is probably the most forward of the three, but I have no idea if he is the best of them. Diakali, on his day, probably is the best, but Bonbon is probably fitter than him. It’s a bit of a shot in the dark, but they have to start off somewhere. The ground will be soft and the conditions of the race will suit and, if they run respectable races, they might win something in the future.
I ride Kaiser Black in the two-and-a-half-mile maiden hurdle and Pat (Doyle, trainer) thinks he has improved since his last run, in Naas, and should go well. He also ran well in Listowel, but disappointed in between, in Tipperary. It’s not the worst maiden hurdle in the world, but if he has taken a step forward from Naas, where he was a place behind one of tomorrow’s rivals, Youcannotbeserious, he should be in the frame.
In the novice chase, Willie runs Great Field, which looks the outsider of J P McManus’ two runners, but he has improved a good bit since winning at Gowran, and shouldn’t be underestimated. He’s brave at his fences, he likes to get on with it, and will go a good gallop. He had plenty of class over hurdles and, although JP’s other horse, Don’t Touch It, is probably the one they all have to beat, it wouldn’t surprise me were Great Field to make them all go.
I think the plan is to bring a couple of horses to jump fences after racing, but what horses are going won’t be finalised until the horseboxes are ready to leave the yard.
It has been a busy week, working horses for Cheltenham, and, touch wood, things are going right thus far – for a change, this season. But, next week will be vital. You’re tuning them up, and the last couple of bits of work and schooling sessions have to be done, and there’s the ever-present potential for something to go wrong.
We’re lucky at the minute, though. It has been a funny season for the yard, but they seem to be in good order now. We’ve had stop-start campaigns with horses, and horses getting injured. The ball hasn’t bounced in the way we’ve been used to it bouncing in the last couple of years, but I’d be very happy with the way they are at the moment.
A lot has been said about Melon drifting in the betting for the Supreme and, equally, about Let’s Dance shortening in the market for the Mares’ Novice Hurdle but, the way I see it, you’ll read about a lot of horses drifting and shortening, but that’s just bookmakers keeping whatever interest has been generated alive.
There are no more trials, so none of these horses are going to run again before Cheltenham, so every drift and contraction of price is all on rumour, on what somebody heard and told somebody else. We’re that close to the festival now, you’re probably as well waiting for declarations.
When the handicap marks came out this week, I didn’t see too many of ours that looked like they were thrown in, but it certainly generated interest. Tombstone looks thrown-in in the County Hurdle, while Presenting Percy has been given a fair whack for his win last week, but I still think he has a bit in hand – I was very impressed with him in Fairyhouse.
There seems to be a lot of talk about the Fred Winter, particularly Nicky Henderson’s horse, Divin Bere, Paul Nicholls’ Dreamcatching and Tony Martin’s Long Call. And I know Gordon (Elliott) is sweet about Automated in the Coral Cup. Our strongest race, traditionally, has been the Martin Pipe. Unfortunately, the ones with the better weights are a long way down the handicap, and only 50:50 to get in. Would Tin Soldier have a chance off 142?
It’s fascinating to look at the marks. You’d wonder, in some cases where we thought they might be Neptune or Albert Bartlett horses, with the marks they got would they be good enough? There’s a lot of deliberation and decision-making to be done between now and next weekend.
We’re 10 days away from the Festival now and Coney Island became the latest high-profile to be ruled out of the meeting. Looking at previous years, it’s almost certain there will be another big name or two which will go missing before the flag falls in the first.
We still have a lot of work to do with the horses next week, and you don’t need much to go wrong to miss out in Cheltenham. It’s a tense time for every yard.
My heart goes out to Barry Geraghty
I feel so sorry for Barry Geraghty, who will miss the Cheltenham Festival through the injuries he picked up last weekend. I know exactly how he is feeling, and what he was thinking.
On Saturday night, when he was saying he had one broken rib and damage to a lung, he was trying his best to keep it as low-profile as possible. You try to convince yourself you’re going to be okay.
You can imagine the physical pain he must have been in last Saturday – six broken ribs, a collapsed lung - and still all he was thinking about was ‘how am I going to tilt this in my favour, and keep the door open and the dream alive as long as I can?’
I know that mentality, I would have been thinking the same as him, and trying as hard as he was to convince myself it would be okay. You’re looking down at a leg or a wrist, saying it’s only a sprain, but you know in your heart and soul it’s broken. Until you physically cannot do it, you’re not going to admit to it.
I bet, at some stage this week, for his own peace of mind, he will try wrest himself out of bed, so he can say to himself ‘I did everything I could’.
And that just shows you just how much riding at the Cheltenham Festival means to a National Hunt jockey.