Enda Bolger has not won Cheltenham’s cross-country race since 2009, but aims to put that right today.
The Limerick trainer has two chances of ending his drought in the three-mile-seven-furlong Glenfarclas Handicap Chase with Arabella Boy and Freneys Well.
Despite his lack of a recent success in this unique contest, Bolger still has a record second to none, with four victories since its inception in 2005.
Arabella Boy, the mount of Nina Carberry, is Bolger’s first string, though he had no luck on his first run on this cross-country course in December.
The eight-year-old held every chance when unseating Carberry at the 27th fence in the race won by Outlaw Pete.
“It was just one of those things last time at Cheltenham. He has a nice weight (10st 9lb) and I see last year’s winner Balthazar King doesn’t run,” said Bolger.
“I think he’ll give a good account of himself. He’s fit to go.”
Though Freneys Well is now 13, Bolger does not believe he is a forlorn hope.
“He’ll be there picking up the pieces as well. He’s ready to run a decent race,” said the trainer.
Bolger believes the increasing quality of the cross-country sphere is making Cheltenham’s Glenfarclas Chase more difficult to win year on year.
A former leading amateur rider in Ireland, Bolger has dominated the specialised area of cross-country and ’banks’ races for the best part of two decades, first shooting to prominence with the remarkable Risk Of Thunder.
The gelding, owned by legendary actor Sean Connery, was retired after winning the La Touche Cup at Punchestown for a remarkable seventh time in 2002.
Three years later the Cheltenham Festival was increased to four days and so came the introduction of the cross-country series, with races held in November, December and at the Festival at Prestbury Park.
The first horse to really capture the public’s imagination in this sphere was the incredible Bolger-trained Spot Thedifference, who won around Cheltenham’s cross-country circuit on seven occasions between 2004 and his retirement in 2007.
He won the inaugural Festival contest as a 12-year-old in 2005 and Bolger has saddled three of the subsequent seven scorers, with Heads Onthe Ground striking gold in 2007 and another course favourite, Garde Champetre, winning back-to-back runnings in 2008 and 2009.
The trainer has been out of luck for the last three years and believes it is down to the fact other trainers are starting to run better horses in the race than they were a few years ago.
Bolger said: “I’m on the cold list for the race at the moment, so we’ll do our best to change that this year. It’s never easy, but I do think it’s getting harder and harder every year.
“We were lucky to have horses like Spot Thedifference and Garde Champetre and better horses are coming into the race all the time.
“I hear there’s a very good horse from France coming over this year who has won his last four and Willie Mullins is starting to target the race as well now with a few of his horses who are too high in the weights for normal handicaps.
While Spot Thedifference and Arabella Boy appeared likely cross-country candidates from early stages of their career, that was certainly not the case for some of Bolger’s recruits, with Garde Champetre the most famous example.
Bought by JP McManus for a staggering €600,000 at Doncaster sales in May 2004 following a successful novice hurdle campaign for Paul Nicholls, the gelding was a major disappointment over regulation fences after joining Jonjo O’Neill.
Following just one win from nine starts for the trainer, Garde Champetre was sent to Bolger, and seemingly turned inside out by the change of scenery, he went on to win six times around Cheltenham’s cross-country track.
Former top-class staying chaser L’Ami was another horse reinvigorated by joining Bolger and he enjoyed a fine couple of years revelling in his new career.
Top amateur JT McNamara is better placed than most to assess Bolger’s skills, having ridden Spot Thedifference to all of his Cheltenham wins and also guided Garde Champetre to victory twice.
“I ride out for him twice a week and he’s just a top-class trainer,” said McNamara. “He concentrates very hard on sweetening horses up. When they come out of the big yards and join him they have a different way of life and it seems to work.
“He has a slightly different routine, horses enjoy it and he’s just a very good trainer.”
But McNamara believe it is unfair to label Bolger simply as a trainer of cross-country horses.
“He obviously does well in the cross-country races but he can train other horses, too. He had a nice novice hurdle winner earlier in the season,” said the jockey.
“He doesn’t get the credit he deserves. If he gets the right horse, he’ll do a good job with it.”
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