For the past fortnight, the birds in the trees have been singing the name of Balko Des Flos, and the six-year-old rewarded all those who had listened with a fluent and very classy performance in the thetote.com Galway Plate.
It was a familiar feeling for trainer Henry De Bromhead, who won the race in 2015 with Shanahan’s Turn, and for owners Gigginstown House Stud, who won the race in 2014 and 2016.
But, it was a first for jockey Davy Russell who is riding with the fervour and enthusiasm of a rider half his age whilst exuding the class and experience which comes with his status as a senior member of the weigh-room.
The two-time champion national hunt jockey of Ireland has won much of what the game has to offer, has had 18 Cheltenham Festival winners, including two RSA Chases and one Gold Cup, and two Galway Hurdles, on Farmer Brown and Rebel Fitz, but Galway’s chase feature was one of the major races missing from his CV before Balko Des Flos stepped up to the Plate.
The race itself was plain sailing. After some early scrimmaging, Russell was happy to sit in fifth or sixth place and his mount eased into a challenging position as the race began in earnest. In a share of the lead jumping the second-last, the six-year-old had his nose in front over the last, and quickly opened up a gap of some three lengths racing up to turn into the straight.
Some five clear and still going best as he faced the long run to the line, he was driven out to maintain that advantage all the way home.
Shaneshill, who had been the subject of a staggering gamble, from 12-1 on Tuesday evening to 3-1 at the off, raced a little better than midfield early but moved into contention quite stylishly. A bad mistake at the second-last didn’t aid his cause, but it would take a serious stretch of the imagination to think it made a difference. The classy hurdler stayed on gamely to snatch second place, with Slowmotion in third, and A Toi Phil in fourth.
“Henry filled me with confidence beforehand,” said a delighted Russell. “He’s a marvellous trainer. He told me to try and get a possy, and sit quiet on him.
“Going out I asked Davy Roche, Henry’s assistant, if he’d stay and he said ‘absolutely, stamina is not an issue’.
“Going down to the second-last I thought I was there too early, and then I met them both on stride and thought I was definitely there too early. But, it’s hard to give away that advantage by sitting up and pulling back, so I decided to sit for a stride or two and then kick off the bend. And it worked.
“I had to get stuck into him in the straight but, fair play to Henry, the horses are fit and brave.”
Regarding the breakthrough success in the race, he added: “To have the family here is special, and these are the times we’ll look back on. I needed this one, but there’s a couple more I’d like to win.”
“Amazing, amazing, absolutely,” said De Bromhead, whose previous winner, Shanahan’s Turn, was also a second-season novice.
“He got super ride and I can’t believe we’ve done it again. He did it really well and he’s an improving horse.”
Remarking on the smooth passage through the race as he was watching it live, De Bromhead admitted: “From a long way out you were certainly starting to think you had a right chance bar a fall or something nasty happening. But Davy was brilliant on him, and everything went our way today.”
Regarding plans for the young chaser, who has been quoted at 20-1 by Betfair for the Ryanair Chase at next season’s Cheltenham Festival, he added: “We’ll make a plan after I speak to Eddie and Michael (O’Leary). It was bottomless the day he won in Fairyhouse so he seems to go on any sort of going. It was great to see him handle it so well today, as I was a little bit concerned it might be too good for him.”
The winning jockey has been on the crest of a wave in recent months, with 15 winners in June and 11 last month. This early in the season in a sport in which a rider can take no day for granted, the Youghal native won’t wish to talk about the possibility of a third title, nor will he have it playing on his mind.
He currently holds a healthy lead in the jockeys’ championship and, deservedly being much in demand from many leading owners and trainers, must have a favourite’s chance. But Russell knows all too well that nothing is handed to jockeys on a Plate — not even a Galway feature.
Going out I asked Davy Roche, Henry’s assistant, if he’d stay and he said ‘absolutely, stamina is not an issue
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