CHELTENHAM: Culloty lording it at Cheltenham

When Jim Culloty walks through his stables at Mount Corbitt in Churchtown, Cork, he tends to count the heads of his horses.

He had only 20 in his care riding out this winter, including “babies” as he puts it himself, so every one is special and yet one moreso than the others. As he ticks them off — one, two, three… — his mind is already racing ahead to the resident in box 11.

Lord Windermere.

In truth, the seven-year old has colonised the vast majority of his working thoughts ever since he brought him in from the fields back in July. Even then he knew he could do something special in yesterday’s RSA Chase.

He knew he was good, sure he did, but he told himself to be patient. Lord Windermere could have been run as a novice hurdler at Prestbury Park last March and run well but Culloty treated him as a three-miler and trained him as one.

That patience was rewarded yesterday as the 8/1 shot was guided home by Davy Russell with almost two lengths to spare over Lyreen Legend after what may or may not have been a failing Boston Bob came a cropper at the last.

It was a success of note for two reasons in that it was the Kerryman’s first as a trainer at the Festival and one that earned him membership of an exclusive club that has known victory in these parts as a jockey and then as a trainer.

His was a career in the saddle that had been peppered with precious moments: three Gold Cups for Henrietta Knight on Best Mate, a Grand National on Bindaree, an Irish Grand National on Timbera and a King George with Edredon Bleu the highlights.

All those victories had come in a blink-of-an-eye four-year spell in the early Noughties but this latest was eight years in the making, since he retired from the jockey game and opened his own business near Mallow.

So, how did it compare? The answer arrives after an eternity of thought.

“Sorry for the pause. Look, I was very lucky to win here on a horse like Best Mate and I won another couple of winners around here as well, Lord Noelie in the Bumper and Total Enjoyment for Tom Cooper and they were unbelievable days but it was exceptional to ride a horse like Best Mate.

“Now the whole training thing: from last July when I got this fella out of the field he was being geared towards the RSA Chase, do you know what I mean? So, to say it is kind of rewarding is an understatement.”

In truth, it must be like being asked to choose a favourite child. All are wonderful but unique. When he was a jockey, the nerves used to descend a half-hour before the off. As a trainer, the butterflies emerge six months before.

He joked yesterday about how his duties here amounted to little more than putting the saddle on and organising logistical matters such as transport. Due credit was given to travelling head girl Rosemary O’Brien and Gary O’Connor, who rode him in the days approaching. But there is more, of course, much more.

Training race horses is a 24/7 labour of love. When Willie Mullins claimed his hat-trick here on Tuesday he was asked and spoke about the six o’clock starts and the wet and the muck and the cold — and Culloty is no different.

“Oh, ya, training racehorses is a form of farming, where you’ve livestock, you’ve deadstock. It’s important to keep them alive and keep them in once piece.

“They’re thoroughbreds, bred for generations to be racehorses. When they’re not racing, they’re not always the most clever and they can get themselves into a bit of bother. So you mind them.”

He has to.

Mullins’ Closutton yard can and does cater for animals that number well into three figures. Culloty struggled to generate any momentum in his small operation in the early days but he has profited from the support of Lord Windermere’s owner Dr Ronan Lambe, who owns almost half his charges.

It has proven to be a mutually profitable relationship for Dr Lambe who, in Culloty’s words, had “hit the crossbar” once or twice before in his quest for a Cheltenham success prior to yesterday’s deliverance.

“If I didn’t have Dr Lambe I would be a struggling trainer. I suppose I am still a struggling trainer but his loyalty and support is incredible. To train racehorses you have to train for the right owners.

“Dr Lambe never once interfered with me training this horse. We discuss races and he would say do whatever you think is best, basically, and I am glad that I am able to reward him with a Cheltenham winner.”

Gentleman Jim. As always.


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