Over the past few months, since the outbreak of Covid-19, I have made no secret of the fact that the restrictions in and re-shaping of the world because of the virus have had a very substantial effect on yours truly. No secret was made of the fact that I didn’t exactly handle the situation well at all
Hope would be, though, that my ability to deal with life as it is presently has at least improved with time. There have been and I’m sure will be difficult days along the way. None more so than lately actually seeing Croke Park needlessly completely empty as the concluding stages of this most unique of championships hurtles towards a conclusion.
As upsetting as that has been, the emotional pain of having the world as I knew it turned inside out really hit like 180 horse power tractor hitting a parked Mini Cooper last weekend when it came to the Fairyhouse Winter Festival last weekend. In my review of the first day’s action last Saturday, comment was made on how gutting it was to be ten minutes from the action and not be allowed put a wheel inside the gate.
As bad as missing the first day was – especially with the weather ideal for a day at the races – but, be stuck at home for the local track’s second biggest day of the year owing to excessively oppressive restrictions was worse than being invited into a Chinese eatery only to be told there was no curry on the menu.
If you look at it from the viewpoint that the Fairyhouse Winter Festival is my equivalent of the Open Meeting at Cheltenham and the Easter meeting my equivalent of The Festival itself at Prestbury Park, it should give some indication of the heartache missing out caused. Yes everyone was in the same boat, but, that such was the case was absolutely ludicrous.
Over the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to see some of the greatest equine talents this country has produced during the course of said weekend. From Istabraq to Solerina to Hurricane Fly, Brave Inca, Mikael D’Haguenet and so many more. And, while eternally grateful for the opportunities life has thrown my way in that regard, there was an extra layer of sadness to missing the two days fare last weekend.
Not only due to the personal reasons outlined above, but also, more basically, because of missing out on getting to see the greatest superstar Irish National Hunt racing – or perhaps jumps racing anywhere at present – Envoi Allen. Anyone who possesses even the most withdrawn of passing interests in horse racing will surely have heard of Arkle, now, not for a moment is one comparing the Cheveley Park owned gelding with Himself (yet) but the former is impossible to knock thus far and already has quite a following.
Sunday’s Drinmore Novices Chase was supposed to be his toughest assignment to do date yet he effortlessly left eight and a half lengths between himself and his nearest pursuer in a high class field. Having such mercurial talent as he on your books throws up lots of beautiful problems. Namely, what trip to campaign the superstar over and whether to keep him to novice company or send him to battle out in the open. I know if it were me I’d certainly be thinking the latter because, as Gordon Elliott said himself “He’s the horse of a lifetime” and you might never have one as good as him again. Not a bad conundrum to have.
Of course, his owners the Thompsons are no strangers to having talented jumps horses. Though only recently have they been running under the Cheveley Park Stud banner. Previously, their representatives – most notably former Grand National winner Party Politics went into battle in Mr Thompson’s ‘private’ purple silks.
Owning one such equine superstar would be beyond the widest dreams of most people. To that end, if there is one thing which greatly upsets me about racing – and particularly locally – it’s that it’s only the select few that get the opportunity to experience what for many of us would be a lifetime’s ambition realised. So, when the opportunity the fulfill such goals is within arms reach – as it is on at least two fronts locally – and you’re not even offered the opportunity to be a part thereof, it hurts more than some people will ever realise.
Anyway, the Cheveley Park operation are in the fortunate position of having supreme equine talent stabled with all those on their training roster in Ireland (Willie Mullins, Gordon Elliott and Henry De Bromhead) and, after Ontheropes made a very eye-catching debut debut over fences on the Saturday, chasing home stable mate Monkfish, as if Envoi Allen didn’t bring enough glee, the same owners also had a very delectable appetiser beforehand when their Ballyadam took the Royal Bond Novice Hurdle with consummate ease. The other main talking point from the Grade 1 hurdle races – for this observer at least – has to be the sight of Noel Meade’s horses competing at Graded level over hurdles again.
The Castletown man has had many top level performers over the smaller obstacles over the years. Even from the time I became properly attuned to matters of the turf with horses such as Iktitafff, Definite Spectacle, More Rainbows, Go Native and my eternal favourite, Harchibald. In more recent years, mind you, the top representatives from Tu Va have been over the bigger obstacles (and on the Flat!) Through the deeds of steeds such as Snow Falcon and Road To Riches and Road To Respect and Tout Est Permis.
It appears the hurdlers are now in the ascendency again if the recent efforts of , the likes of Cask Mate and Beacon Edge if their efforts in Grade 1 company are anything to go by. Granted, the latter was a good few lengths off Honeysuckle in the Hattons Grace Hurdle.
Kenny Alexander is another of the bigger new owners to enter the fray in Irish racing in recent times – along with Cheveley Park and Robocur and the Donnellys – and the man who appears to specialise in mares has the real jewel in the crown with Honeysuckle.
Henry De Bromhead’s charge remains unbeaten in her career to date having dealt with a top table contest in a manner she might tuck away a hack canter in Knockeen. Furthermore, the normally understated trainer all but conceded that she will head for the Champion Hurdle in March 2021 if all goes to plan in the interim.
As if all the above wasn’t enough to keep a mind ticking over until the Christmas feast of racing, there was, in the long distance handicap chase, the first potential clues regarding the next Irish Grand National, whenever it may be.
The form of Tom Mullins’s horses, both on the Flat and over jumps, has been one of the untold stories of the year. In the aforementioned handicap chase, there was clear evidence that the trainer now has two live contenders for Ireland’s most important race in Court Maid, who won the race, and Scoir Mear who came in a staying on fifth. Noel Meade’s Brace Yourself, who was a very exciting bumper horse before enduring a long injury layoff. The 7-year-old evidently retains much of his ability. Having chased home the winner, Patricia Hunt’s gelding would appear well set for a crack at the big one.
If any of us get to see it.