Aidan Coleman has carved out a solid career since moving to England from Cork over a decade ago but it wasn’t until Paisley Park won the JLT Hurdle last December that he finally joined the Grade One club. Now the 30-year-old is hoping the Stayers’ Hurdle favourite can double his tally of Cheltenham Festival successes later this week, writes
Aidan Coleman is keeping busy 13 days ahead of a date with destiny.
An hour earlier, beforehe takes your call, winner number 84 for the season has been bagged and tagged with a minimum of fuss, Poppy Kay winning a two-runner race at Doncaster at odds of 1-16.
“She was fairly short, so I might not have been answering if she got beat,” Coleman jokes.
It’s a world away from the scene that will greet Coleman when he gets legged up on Stayers’ Hurdle favourite Paisley Park in the feature race on day three of theCheltenham Festival, but,ever the pro, he bristles atthe notion that any one race should be considered more significant than another.
“Every race is someone’s Gold Cup,” he points out. “Every race is important in its own right. Obviously, in the greater scheme of things, Cheltenham is Cheltenham, but people look after, people back, and people ride, horses in every race, so it’s important to take them all very seriously.
“You don’t want an everyday owner thinking someone tries harder at Cheltenham than they do at Donny,Plumpton, or wherever.
“You have to be on the ball every day, not just Saturdays and festivals.”
Surely, though, being the man on board the hot favourite for a championship race at Cheltenham means the build-up to this year’s Festival has a different feel?
It’s great to be associated with a horse like this, not only for Cheltenham, but for the year he’s had and for hopefully the rest of his career. He’s still young, so hopefully I’m going to have Paisley Park in my life for a few years to come.
“For someone like me, he’s really come out of the woodwork. When I rode him for the first time at Aintree at the start of the season, I wasn’t to know — no-one knew — what he’d end up doing. When he won that day I knew he was very good.”
Having won at Aintree, a Grade Three contest at Haydock was Paisley Park’s next port of call. There, he turned what seemed destined to be certain defeat into an unlikely triumph with a storming finish to get up on the line. Coleman was both impressed and relieved by this great escape.
“The track didn’t really suit him and it just got away from him,” Coleman recalls.
“Quick ground aroundHaydock, horses don’t stop, they always gallop, whereas on soft ground they come back to you. We were left with a nearly impossible task and that was the day that really impressed me, because I thought: ‘You shouldn’t really have won that race, but thank you very much for getting me out of trouble.’”
After Haydock, the Grade One JLT Hurdle — the Long Walk in old money — at Ascot was the obvious next destination for Emma Lavelle’s charge. It was to prove a landmark day for horse, trainer, and jockey: A breakthrough success at the highest level.
Given Coleman’s consistent excellence since he moved to England from Innishannon over a decade earlier, the only surprise was it had taken him so long to join the Grade One club.
“I’ve been around a long time and I’ve ridden loads of good winners, I’ve had a very good career. A Grade One eluded me for a while, but you get so grounded in this game, there’s so many ups and downs, and with experience, you take it as it goes. Withexperience, you get better with dealing with winning and losing, so I suppose I pushed it away and never let it be a big deal, but when I had it done I thought: ‘That was massive, that was something I had to do. I had to do that or no matter what else I achieved in my career, it would have left a big hole.’ I didn’t think it would be such a relief, but when it was in the bag, 50 yards from the line when I could only win, it clicked with me that this was massive for me.”
Coleman’s long wait illustrates just how hard it is to get on the top horses, particularly if you’re not associated with a high-profile stable.
The 30-year-old has ridden in many Grade Ones, butPaisley Park was that rarestof gems: A horse with agenuine chance.
“Someone said to me the other day that I’ve had 101 rides in Grades Ones. I’ve only been close to winning one other Grade One other than the JLT Hurdle and that was the Champion Chase with Fox Norton a couple of years ago. It means that I’ve only ever been competitive in two Grade Ones in 101. I’ve been placed in others, but I consider being placed and being competitive different. That shows how hard it is.”
Even after Ascot, doubts remained:Sam Spinner hadunseated at thesecond, Unowhatimeanharry had fallen at the seventh,circumstances conspired against favourite Call Me Lord — just how reliable was the form?
That question would be answered in no uncertain terms in the Grade Two Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham onFestival Trials Day, as Paisley Park stamped his authority in emphatic fashion, cruising to an imperious 12-length win.
In doing so, any remaining doubters were silenced: Here indeed was the real deal. For Coleman, it was simplyanother step on the ladder.
“Every run he’s had, he’s gone up another level,” he says. “The Cleeve was by far his best performance, but every run has been animprovement on the onebefore. There was probably more strength-in-depth in the field than Ascot and he proved that he is a top-class stayer.”
The ultimate proof of that statement could come on Thursday, but Coleman is convincing in his assertion that he hasn’t allowed himself to think about the significance of doubling his Cheltenham Festival tally by landing oneof the biggest contests of theracing year.
“I don’t dream about winning these races. I’ve never really thought like that,” he insists.
I just go out and do the job. I’ve never seen the benefit of dreaming of winning these races. Obviously, you want to win, you’d doanything to win, but it’s not my mentality to dream about winning races. My mentality is to think about how I’m going to win the race.
“Basically, I’m confident he’s going to go and run his race and, if he gets a clear round, I really hope he runs well. What will be, will be, after that. I’ve every faith in him, but I’m not going to nail my colours at any mast and say he’s going to win. It’s the Cheltenham Festival and lots of things have to go right and plenty can go wrong, but I’m confident that I’m going to go out and enjoy my ride and hopefully there’ll be noexcuses.”
One potential threat wasremoved late last month when reigning champion Penhill was ruled out, but Coleman is keenly aware that there is any number of rivals with the raw ability to thwart him.
“Say if Sam Spinner wins; he was favourite for this race last year, so you’re not really going to be scratching your head if he wins, going: ‘Where did that come from?’ Every horse in the race deservesrespect, because they all have a performance in them that’s good enough to win a Stayers’ Hurdle.”
Coleman’s caution is easy to understand.
A decade has now passed since Kayf Aramis gave him a Festival breakthrough by landing the Pertemps.
“It wasn’t as big to me then as it probably would be now, I was too young [to fullyappreciate it],” says Coleman.
He thought he had doubled that tally when he steered Any Currency to victory in the Cross County Chase in 2016, but the horse was laterdisqualified after a banned substance was found in his system.
“He got disqualified, but we had that day, the day was very much there. I’d prefer to have the day and then lose it than to get it after the day.”
Home for Coleman is just a 10-minute drive from Prestbury Park, so Cheltenham week, mercifully, won’t require hours on the road. Consequently, Coleman can relax before and after racing. Nor will he be expected toplay host to an invasion from Innishannon.
“Dad doesn’t really come racing very often. Mam went to Cheltenham a few years ago, but she doesn’t particularly like it, she goes toAintree every year, religiously. So there won’t be a big family representation, but I’m quite happy with that. I live an easy 10 minutes from the course, so it’s a nice week for me. I won’t ride out, I’ll have a lie in, I’ll play my X-Box when I come home and forget about things.”
Not that he’ll want to forget about anything should Paisley Park oblige. Not only would victory in the Stayers’ be a sweet success, it would also edge Coleman a step closer to a notable landmark: His 1,000th career victory.
While arguing that personal milestones only really have special significance to theindividual involved, Coleman admits it would be a nice box to tick. Should he tick it this season, he will, for the fourth time, have achieved the one target he sets for himself at the beginning of every season.
“One-hundred winners every year is my target. If you have 100 winners every year, you can’t call it a bad year, no matter what happens. It’s a good number to have.”
If one of the 100 is a Stayers’ Hurdle winner, it’s a great number to have.