The placement of the many framed pictures at Noel Meade’s home in Castletown, Co Meath is revealing.
The house is a shrine to the many great horses that have helped Meade become one of Ireland’s most successful trainers.
The hall boasts numerous pictures but one in splendid isolation stands out. It is to this picture Meade points instantly when asked for his favourite horse of those he has had in a career spanning over 40 years.
‘‘Harchibald mightn’t have necessarily been the best because I think Cardinal Hill there (Meade points at another picture) was the best horse we had,’’ he explains.
“Harchibald was such a character along with everything else and even though he should have, and maybe could have, won more he was the horse everybody was always talking about whether he won or lost.’’
The quirky Harchibald won five Grade 1 races in a stellar career but sadly it is one of the races he didn’t win that he’s most remembered for.
Harchibald looked to be travelling best when he jumped the last alongside Hardy Eustace and Brave Inca in the 2005 Champion Hurdle but was out-battled on the run to the finish and had to settle for second.
In his autobiography, Paul Carberry, Harchibald’s jockey that day, wrote candidly about the criticism he received from irate punters for his tactics and the impact the defeat had on Meade.
Reflecting on the day Meade recalled: ‘‘That was nearly like someone scoring the goal in the last kick of the game in an All-Ireland final to beat you. That was the difference in it. We thought we had the Champion Hurdle won and it just didn’t happen.
‘‘Was Paul right or wrong? I don’t know. I think if he had to run it again he might run it different. I didn’t blame him for what he did. He thought he done it right on the day and I still don’t (blame him).
‘‘If he hadn’t jumped the second last so well maybe... if, if, if, if... What happened happened and that’s it.
“You couldn’t be in front long with him and you needed to come with a sweeping run. He was alongside two of the worst horses you could be alongside because both of them were tough, hard battlers. You make a decision and as Paul always says, ‘I can’t change it now’.’’
The Champion Hurdle may have been a blow but Meade has had worse experiences, most recently last month when three-time Grade 1 winner Go Native, who had been patiently nursed back to fitness after a two-and-a-half year injury lay-off, died after breaking a hind leg while cantering on the gallops.
It wasn’t a new experience for Meade. He lost Cardinal Hill in 1999 and Iktitaf in 2007. Familiarity with the experience doesn’t make things any easier though and Go Native’s death was particularly cruel given he had looked close to being back to his best before falling when in hot pursuit of Hurricane Fly in the Morgiana Hurdle just days earlier.
‘‘Go Native and Iktitaf were two seriously bad days,’’ Meade says. ‘‘Go Native, the way it happened, he came back as good or better than he was and it was quite incredible to think that we could get him back and the next thing this could happen. He’d done all those things and deserved a bit of luck and the next thing: bang.’’
That he was able to get Go Native back to such a high level speaks volumes of Meade’s training abilities and offers hope that Pandorama, last seen in the 2011 Cheltenham Gold Cup, might again reach the heights he scaled in the past if, as is hoped, he returns to action in the Lexus Chase at Christmas.
‘‘I’m hopeful he’ll run,’’ Meade says. ‘‘I wouldn’t go so far as to say he’ll be ready to win but I’m hopeful he’ll run.’’
This week has highlighted the fragility of training horses with Paul Nicholls suffering the double blow of losing the brilliant Big Buck’s and Paddy Power Gold Cup winner Al Ferof to injury for the rest of the season.
Meade acknowledges successfully bringing horses back from injury is one of the toughest parts of his job.
‘‘Yes,’’ he sighs. ‘‘It’s not easy. So few of them do come back to where they were at.
“It’s difficult to get them back up to that. When they get injured they generally lose a percentage of their ability. It’s very hard to get them to peak up to that again.’’
The fallout of Budget 2013 has dominated the headlines in recent weeks and Meade admits the recession has bitten hard.
‘‘I’ve half the horses I had. We’re not getting the same amount of money as we were. Nothing is the same. But it’s the same for everybody else. We enjoy what we do and we enjoy what we’re at. Some days it’s hard and some days it’s good.’’
And with talented young horses like Ally Cascade, Ned Buntline and Sword Of Destiny — the trio who Meade selects as the horses he’s most looking forward to at Leopardstown over Christmas — along with the likes of Monksland and Road To Riches on his books, the best days for the trainer may be yet to come.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved