Riding for glory

RIGHTLY or wrongly, National Hunt jockeys these days are rated by the number of winners they ride at the Cheltenham Festival.

For all the thousands of triumphs overseen by Tony McCoy, it is Ruby Walsh who is the master when it comes to Prestbury Park.

Conor O’Dwyer retired some way off Walsh’s impressive current tally of 24 – only one off the all-time record held by Pat Taaffe – but his four winners are all memorable.

The Irishman, who called it a day after riding Mister Top Notch to victory in March 2008 and now trains from a base at the Curragh, won two Gold Cups and two Champion Hurdles.

Imperial Call’s success over Rough Quest in 1996 raised his profile to a new level and his partnership with Hardy Eustace, who won the hurdling blue riband in 2004 and 2005, was one punters came to rely upon.

His final Cheltenham winner was War Of Attrition in the 2006 Gold Cup.

O’Dwyer said: “I suppose Imperial Call surprised a few as he was a second-season novice. He’d won the Irish Hennessy previously and a lot of people might have thought that was his Gold Cup.

“I remember chasing him home on a very good horse called Strong Platinum and that was when I thought he could be very useful.

“That was over two and a half miles so to stay three and a quarter miles too, he must have had a lot of talent.

“The trip and ground made no difference to him and that is always the sign of a proper horse, but he just wasn’t the easiest to keep right.”

Imperial Call was only seven when he achieved his finest success, but injury prevented him from dominating the scene.

“His first run back after the Gold Cup was in the John Durkan when he fell at the last, it was a horrible fall and I don’t think he ever really got his confidence back,” reflected O’Dwyer.

“He spent a year or two from the side looking in. He won a Munster National with 12st, which was a good performance.

“He won a John Durkan and a Punchestown Gold Cup but he was never the same horse.

“He was only seven when he won the Gold Cup and you never know, you could be talking about him in the same breath as Best Mate.

“He had every attribute you want in a Gold Cup winner but they need to stay sound.”

The circumstances as to how O’Dwyer picked up the ride on Hardy Eustace were tragic.

Kieran Kelly had already won a Royal & SunAlliance Hurdle on Dessie Hughes’ star, but died after a terrible fall at Kilbeggan in 2003.

“It’s hard to explain how I felt getting the ride on Hardy,” said O’Dwyer.

“I always felt Kieran would have wanted me to have the ride, I was close enough to him and his family were happy enough.

“Saying that, there was a little bit of added pressure as I really wanted it to work, normally these things don’t.

“I got beaten on him four times before the Champion and we went there having got beaten in the Red Mills by a short head, so it looked like things weren’t working out.

“My first win on him was in the Champion so they were all forgotten.

“He just absolutely loved the place. It was the only place all year everything was in his favour. The flat-out gallop, the better ground, the hill – everything about the place suited him.

“I’ve never ridden a horse who got from one side of a hurdle to the other so quick.

“It was a golden age at the time. Macs Joy, Brace Inca, Rooster Booster and, of course, Harchibald, all of them good enough to win it but he was by far the best jumper of them all.

“The second year was one of the most famous races for years when we beat Harchibald.

“I knew when I landed over the last and I could see Harchibald’s head getting higher and Hardy’s was getting lower, I knew he wasn’t going to get by me.

“People often ask me who was the best horse I ever rode and while he may not have had the most ability, he had the most determination and guts to win races. He just never knew when he was beaten.”

Mouse Morris’s War Of Attrition is amazingly heading back to Cheltenham this year with a live each-way chance in the World Hurdle, having returned from serious injury.

O’Dwyer said: “It’s great to see ‘The War’ back like he is, he’s jumping his hurdles so well.

“He’s showing great enthusiasm and everybody loves seeing the really top-class horses coming back and winning.

“I know when he wasn’t running well over fences he was working great at home because I rode him myself so it was frustrating for Mouse when people were saying he should be retired.

“It’s no secret he was never at his best on the soft but it wasn’t the galloping it was the jumping, I think that’s why he’s showing better form over hurdles now, it’s not taking much out of him.

“Everyone forgets he was only just touched off in a Supreme by Brave Inca but he went straight over fences so he could have gone right to the top over hurdles, too.

“He was seven as well when he won the Gold Cup so it goes to show how brilliant Henrietta Knight trained Best Mate to have him at a peak three years in-a-row.

“Also the job Paul Nicholls is doing with Kauto Star, I appreciate it much more now.”

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