Donn's Articles » Noel Meade

Cheltenham 1980, Triumph Hurdle day, Noel Meade stands on the Cheltenham lawn, about half way between the final flight and the winning line, and watches as Starfen and Tommy Carmody fall at the last and bring David Elsworth’s horse, Heighlin, almost to a standstill. Joe Byrne, riding Meade’s horse Batista, gets his whip out and goes for home. Meade watches anxiously as they race away from him up the hill. When they cross the line, the trainer isn’t sure, it’s difficult to tell from his position, but he thinks that Batista is up. He isn’t. He’s beaten a short head. Byrne gets suspended for three months for excessive use of the whip.

Cheltenham 1992, 12th March, Tiananmen Square is sent off the 6/4 favourite for the inaugural Cheltenham Bumper. Tiananmen Square finishes second to Montelado. He exacts his revenge at Punchestown six weeks later. It’s great, but it isn’t Cheltenham.

Cheltenham 1993, 17th March, Heist in the bumper is the Irish banker for the meeting. As a St Patrick’s Day special, bookmakers Paddy Power offer double the odds on any Irish winner, and the punters pile into Heist. Rhythm Section and Paul Carberry go on at the top of the hill. Charlie Swan stalks him on Heist, makes his move after they straighten up for home, but just can’t quite get there. He finishes second, beaten a half a length.

Cheltenham 1998, 17th March, St Patrick’s Day again, Hill Society sets off up the run-in in the Arkle in pursuit of long-time leader Champleve. Gradually, he makes his ground up the hill under Richard Dunwoody as Champleve weakens. They go past as one. Meade isn’t sure, but everyone is telling him that he is up. The result still isn’t announced by the time the two horses and jockeys arrive back in the winner’s enclosure. Dunwoody shakes his head. He was in front before the line and he was definitely in front after the line, but on the line, just on the nod, he’s not sure. Still the judge deliberates. There are microphones and cameras everywhere, everyone wants a word, a reaction. Then the result. A hush descends. First number 16. Champleve.

Then along came Sausalito Bay, 14th March 2000. Meade took up his position again on his own on the lawn before the Festival curtain-raiser, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, about half way up the run-in. You can get a good view of the whole race from there, except for the actual run-in. He saw Sausalito Bay and Paul Carberry jump the last in front, and he saw Best Mate and Jim Culloty set out after them up the run-in. He couldn’t see anything else, there were too many heads in the way. He couldn’t hear the commentary with the noise. He knew the race was over, he thought his horse had won, but he wasn’t sure.

He asked the anonymous people around him. “What won?” Nobody seemed to know, nor appreciate the significance of the answer. He rushed towards the gap under the stands to make his way back to the unsaddling enclosure. On his way, he met Edward O’Grady.

“What won?”

“I dunno.”

It wasn’t until he got to the far side of the stands, almost to the winner’s enclosure, that he learned that Sausalito Bay had won by three parts of a length. That was some night.


We are sitting in Noel Meade’s office, surrounded by dusk. If you needed a measure of the degree to which Meade can capture and hold your attention, there it is right there. Start the interview in broad daylight. Then, by the time you turn of your tape recorder and accept the trainer’s invitation to retire to the kitchen for a cup of coffee, you have been enveloped by a grey half-light, and you didn’t even notice. If there was ever a mass exodus of racehorses from Tu Va, there is no question that Meade could take up story-telling for a living.

Meade squirms in his chair as he recounts the tales, pain killers masking the back injury that may prevent him from travelling to Cheltenham this year. There are the Lester stories. You could fill a book with the Lester stories alone. Piggott’s first ride for Meade, a starry-eyed 25-year-old trainer, was in 1976, when Piggott copped £500 and a Montcristo cigar from the owners for riding the winner of a race that was worth £1,000.

Then there is the story of Ascot’s September meeting in 1978. Meade had two runners, La Samanna, who would go on to finish second in the Irish 1,000 Guineas the following year, who was going in the Hoover Fillies’ Mile, and Sweet Mint, who had won the Cork and Orrery Stakes at the Royal meeting earlier that year, and who was running in the Diadem. Meade managed to get Piggott to ride both of them, no mean achievement.

Piggott comes into the parade ring before the Fillies’ Mile

“How much better is this filly than the one I rode for you last Saturday?” he asks.

“She’s about a stone better,” says Meade, “but I’m not sure she’ll get a mile.”


Piggott makes the running on La Samanna, who runs well, but fades to finish fourth. Piggott comes back in, whips the saddle from La Samanna’s back, and looks the expectant Meade in the eye.

“Didn’t stay,” he grunts.

The fillies’ owners gather around when Piggott has gone.

“Well, what did he say?” they ask the trainer.

“He said she didn’t stay,” says Meade.

“But sure didn’t you tell him that?”

Piggott comes out for the Diadam Stakes, and Meade gives him his instructions again, insofar as you give Piggott instructions.

“I know she won the Cork and Orrery,” says the trainer, “but she is not that quick. She just grinds it out. You want to ride her aggressively and get the others in trouble from early.”


Piggott holds the filly up in the race, produces her a furlong out, but she can’t quicken, finishes fourth.

Piggott comes back in, just as before, releases the girth, takes the saddle off, and looks at the trainer.

“Didn’t quicken.”

La Samanna’s owners come over again when Piggott has gone.

“Well, what did he say about this one?” they ask.

“He said she didn’t quicken,” responds the trainer.

“But didn’t you tell him that?” they ask incredulously. “What are you going to do about it?”

“What can I do?” asks Meade, laughing. “He’s the best in the world!”

There are other stories. Lots of them. There’s the one about Pinch Hitter’s Galway Hurdle win in 1982. It was the one race, above all others at the time, that Meade wanted to win. He partied all night, went back to the hotel, had a shower, put on a clean shirt, and went to the races again the following day.

There was the morning after Sausalito Bay’s win in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. RTE rang him to ask him if he would do a radio interview with Marian Finucane. He went out to the car with his phone and his papers, the sun streaming in through the window, the excesses of the previous night streaming through his pores. The first part of the interview went fine. Then Marian spoke to Aidan O’Brien, who was on the other line, about Istabraq’s Champion Hurdle win. By the time she came back to Noel, he had fallen asleep.

Meade laments the way the game has changed, become more professional. It’s good in lots of ways, but he misses the craic. They don’t have the same craic as they used to. After Nicanor won the Sun Alliance Hurdle in 2006, becoming the first horse to beat Denman and providing Meade with his second and latest Cheltenham Festival win, he was at home in his bed by 10 o’clock.

It doesn’t mean that it has got any easier to have a winner at Cheltenham, however. If the trainer thought that Sausalito Bay’s win would be the catalyst for the opening of the flood gates and a rush of Meade Cheltenham Festival winners, he very quickly realised that it wasn’t. In the very next race, the Arkle, Frozen Groom was in front and travelling well when he came down at the third last. The following day, Native Dara led by five lengths at the final flight in the Coral Cup. If there had been in-running betting on betting exchanges at the time, he would have traded at the floor price, 1/100, no question. Even looking at the replays on Racing UK these days, you still can’t believe that What’s Up Boys nabbed him just on the line. Meade said at the time that, if Sausalito Bay hadn’t won the previous day, he would have climbed up on to the top of the stands, and jumped.

Meade has assembled a strong-looking team for next week’s annual assault on the foothills of Prestbury Park. Strangely, he is probably a little more low-profile this year than usual. There is no Meade banker, no Aran Concerto, no Sweet Wake. Willie Mullins is attracting all the plaudits this time. But the strength of Meade’s team may have been underestimated. With the domestic trainer’s championship a foregone conclusion for Mullins this year from a while back, Meade has been able to concentrate more on targeting horses at specific races rather than necessarily trying to win as much prize money in Ireland as he could.

The trainer finds it difficult to split his three Champion Hurdle aspirants. Muirhead is improving all the time. He is a difficult horse to keep right, to keep weight on, but he is as heavy now as he ever is, and Carberry likes him a lot. Harchibald looked good in winning the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton and seems to be as good as ever at the age of 10, and Jered is on track after a break through the winter months.

“After Jered ran in the Maplewood Developments Hurdle, we said we wouldn’t run him on soft ground again,” says Meade, “so he went back to his owner’s place for a couple of weeks. He will probably go to do a little bit of work at Leopardstown on Sunday. My one little worry about him is his lack of competitive match practice at jumping at speed over hurdles. But he is well now and on track.”

Push him to put his neck on the line, tell you which of the three he thinks has the best chance, and he is reticent. Maybe Harchibald if the ground is good. But he will always say maybe Harchibald if the ground is good.

Go Native booked his ticket to the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle with an impressive win at Naas last Sunday.

“He didn’t surprise me on Sunday,” says the trainer. “I don’t think he ran a whole lot better than he ran at Christmas, when he got beaten by Hurricane Fly. But we made a mistake at the last that day, so that didn’t help. He rarely comes off the bridle at home. He handled the soft ground well on Sunday, but he will be better on better ground, he jumps really well, and Paul was really impressed with him. We go there with a chance.”

If Realt Dubh goes to Cheltenham, it will be for the Ballymore Properties, not the Supreme Novices’, but Pandorama definitely doesn’t travel. It’s a shame, but Meade has decided to take the long term view. Carberry agrees, says that he thinks he could win a Gold Cup. He could win the three-mile novices’ hurdle, but it could kill him. He’s just a big baby. Best to skip Cheltenham this year and build towards his chasing career.

“It’s not easy to get a horse like Pandorama,” says Meade. “Every year, you look at the big chases and you wonder where are all the good horses. A lot of them might have been left behind at Cheltenham as five and six-year-olds.”

Casey Jones has a real chance in the RSA Chase. He has beaten two Grade 1 winners in Golden Silver and Trafford Lad, and he will love the good ground. Sky Hall or Kandari in the County Hurdle, Parsons Pistol will probably go in the four-miler, Nicanor will run in the Arkle if he travels, not the RSA Chase, and he may be joined in the race by Hotel Hilamar, while Jaamid may go in the Jewson.

Ask the trainer about his expectations, and he tells you emphatically, one winner. Just one would do. If he gets there, back injury permitting, he will be adopting his usual position on the lawn half way up the run-in before the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. And he won’t be climbing up to the top of the stands, that’s for sure.

© The Sunday Times, 1st March 2009