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Noel Meade

Noel Meade didn’t go to Cheltenham last March. It was always going to be a race against time to get him to a level of fitness at which the journey was possible and devoid of excruciating pain and, in the end, time won.

Meade and his bad back sat in his sitting room at Tu Va, just outside Navan in County Meath, and watched as Go Native scampered away up the hill and clung on to win the curtain-raiser, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, and it nearly killed him. It wasn’t the pain that he felt in the small of his back from lepping around the sitting room, it was simply the fact that he wasn’t there. They do a good show on the television and, in the build up to the Festival, he masochistically tinkered with the idea that he might quite enjoy watching the whole show from afar, a member of the audience and not of the cast, but he didn’t. He may as well have been wearing a cilice.

It is for days like that day that you do what you do. It is why you get up in the morning when most sane people are half-way through their night’s sleep, why you effectively work every hour of every day, always on duty, so that, when your turn comes, you can walk up the centre of the parade ring, into the amphitheatre that is Cheltenham’s winner’s enclosure, and drink in the accolades. In the 29 years since Batista was beaten a short head in the Triumph Hurdle, it was just the third time that a Noel Meade-trained horse had made the petal-strewn journey from the far side of the winning line at the Cheltenham Festival to the winner’s enclosure, and the trainer wasn’t there to be a part of it.

He didn’t go to Newcastle last November either when Go Native won the Fighting Fifth Hurdle, and he wasn’t at Kempton when Go Native won the Christmas Hurdle, but they were different. The Fighting Fifth clashes with Fairyhouse’s Hatton’s Grace Hurdle meeting, the Christmas Hurdle is on at the same time as Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival, and Meade prefers to be at home to look after his horses and his runners here. He has now won four Christmas Hurdles and three Fighting Fifths, and he hasn’t been present for any of them. It’s not superstition, he claims, it’s just the way it works out. If it ain’t broke, why try to fix it?

Paul Carberry was the trainer’s representative at Newcastle and Kempton this year. Suspended from riding, Meade was delighted that Carberry could be involved. His prolonged absence hasn’t made things easy for Meade, but Davy Condon has been a fantastic deputy.

Condon spoke to Meade before the Fighting Fifth.

“How will I ride him?” he asked the trainer.

“Just do what Paul tells you.”

“Yeah, but how do you want me to ride him?”

“Just do what Paul tells you!”

Go Native’s first run ever was in the four-year-old bumper at Leopardstown on St Stephen’s Day 2007. Nina Carberry rode him, they thought he couldn’t get beaten, he finished ninth. Ten days later Meade saw Nina ambling around the yard, kicking the ground, in pensive mood. “I still can’t believe that horse got beaten on St Stephen’s Day,” she said. In 13 runs since, he has only once finished out of the first two.

Before the Fighting Fifth, with Solwhit and Binocular and Sublimity in the line-up, the pundits said that it was a top race. Afterwards, they said that it was a messy race with no pace, with the result that Binocular, beaten seven lengths at Newcastle, was again sent off as favourite for the Christmas Hurdle. Although he only got home by a short head in the end, Go Native was probably by far the best horse on the day in the Christmas Hurdle, and still he isn’t favourite for the Champion.

“I don’t really mind what price he is or what they say any more,” says Meade thoughtfully. “I used to get upset when they would write mean things about Harchi(bald), but not any more. When Sausalito Bay won the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, they said that Best Mate was unlucky. When Nicanor won the Sun Alliance Hurdle, they said that Denman was unlucky. Before the Fighting Fifth Hurdle they said it was a top race, afterwards they knocked it. I don’t take much notice now.”

Go Native won’t run now until Champion Hurdle day, when he will race for the £1 million bonus that WBX have put up for any horse that can win the Fighting Fifth, the Christmas Hurdle and the Champion Hurdle, and he will be primed to run for his life.

Meade has always thought that there wasn’t much between his two top novice hurdlers from last year, Go Native and Donnas Palm. Indeed, when the pair of them met in the Future Champion Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown last Christmas, Paul Carberry rode Donnas Palm as Slippers Madden rode Go Native to finish second behind Hurricane Fly.

“We’ve never really tried them together, we’d never work the two of them together to find out which of them was the best, but Donnas Palm has always worked very very well,” says Meade. “He could quicken up with anything.”

Donnas Palm hadn’t even celebrated his first birthday by the time that he arrived at Tu Va in February 2005. In the spring of 2008, he joined the Grand Alliance Racing Club, a racing club that crosses the political divide, with a membership that reads like a Leinster House roll book, including Brian Cowen (FF) and Liam Cosgrave (FG), Noel Davern (FF) and Frank Fahy (FF).

“We had Arctic Copper with Noel, and Copper Moon, then he got injured, so we had no horse with him and we asked me to keep an eye out for something,” says Liam Cosgrave. “It’s great fun and we have been very lucky. We have had just three horses, between them they have won 15 times and Arctic Copper completed the Grand National course in 2005. We have an annual meeting at which Noel is the guest of honour and at which you would be suspended if you brought up politics!”

Since last Christmas, the respective careers of Go Native and Donnas Palm have diverged. While Go Native was busy accepting his Cheltenham laurels, Donnas Palm’s season petered out disappointingly, and he was stepped down a grade for the start of this season.

“We have probably been a bit cagey with him this season,” says the trainer. “He has been played a bit under the bar, simply because last year we went maybe the other route, straight into the Grade 1 Royal Bond Hurdle after winning his maiden, and he had a hard race, just beaten a neck by Hurricane Fly. He ran disappointingly a couple of times after that in high class races, so this year we didn’t really allow him have those hard races. We have spaced out his races a bit more this year, he has had an easier time of it, and he has benefited from that.”

The trainer was in two minds at the beginning of the week about whether or not he would allow the son of Great Palm take his chance in the Toshiba Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown this afternoon. He and Muirhead were his two entries, but Muirhead got beaten by Ebadiyan at Naas on Tuesday – a defeat over which the trainer is still scratching his head – so if Donnas Palm hadn’t been declared on Friday, Meade wouldn’t have had a runner in the race.

“He worked very well earlier this week,” he says, “and I had a chat with Barry, who thought that he would have a fair chance, so we said we’d let him run.”

It’s going to be tough for Donnas Palm at Leopardstown today, but he could be good enough to compete at this level and, however he fares, Noel Meade will be there, that’s for sure. Political correctness dictates.

© The Sunday Times, 24th January 2010