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Noel Meade

Noel Meade took his place in the stands at Down Royal before the Grade 2 two-and-a-half-mile chase two weeks ago. He could hardly have been happier with Pandorama. His work had been great, he had schooled well, the horse was exactly where he wanted him to be, and this was the ideal starting point in a season that could lead to God only knew where.

He watched through his binoculars as Pandorama cantered down to the start under Paul Carberry, his easy movement carrying him effortlessly over the ground. Butterflies. Even now, almost 40 years after he took out a licence, five champion trainer awards later, he gets nervous before he sends out a good one.

“I don’t care who you are,” declares the trainer. “Michael Stoute or Henry Cecil or Aidan O’Brien, you’re always going to be nervous before one of your good horses runs.”

He watched on the big screen as they circled at the start, and he saw the starter examining his horse. He thought at first that they were checking his noseband, his equipment, but it soon became apparent that there was more to it than that. He took out his phone to ring Paddy Graffin, who was looking at the horse with the vet, but because he was in the North, and becasue he didn’t have the international dialling code keyed into his phone, the call didn’t connect. He raced down the stands and into the weigh room, from where he was able to talk to the starter via walkie-talkie.

There was a trickle of blood on Pandorama’s nose. It didn’t look too serious, the horse seemed fine, he cantered a couple of hundred yards away and back to the start, and Paul said he felt fine, but the trainer was in no doubt about the best course of action. Take him out. You couldn’t take a chance. Not with a horse as good as Pandorama. If he had been a low-grade handicapper, maybe you could have let him run, but not Pandorama.

“This horse had won eight of his nine races,” recalls Meade now, sitting in his office, two weeks on. “He was favourite for the race, and here he was with a bit of blood on his nose. If I had let him run and he had run badly, I would have kicked myself for starters, but everybody else would have kicked me as well, probably before I got the chance.”

As it turned out, it wasn’t serious. The blood was coming from a little pouch just inside the horse’s nose, not from his lungs, and that was crucial. It was largely a superficial cut, he probably banged it in the box or in his stable. He could have run, it almost certainly wouldn’t have affected his performance, much in the same way as a nose bleed wouldn’t really affect a human’s performance. Even so, Meade is glad he didn’t take the chance.

In terms of planning Pandorama’s route this season, his withdrawal from the Down Royal race was barely a bump. Next Saturday’s Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury has been his early-season target for quite some time. In terms of preparation, it would have been ideal if he had been able to run at Down Royal, but he is fit, he is close to his optimum racing weight, and Meade was able to get a good gallop into him at Punchestown last weekend instead, which should put him spot on.

“I was thinking,” says Meade slowly, “that if Paul Nicholls let one of his good horses run in it, we would get in off 10 stone, even though we would be out of the weights. But when you think about it, if we didn’t run in the Hennessy, we’d be looking at the John Durkan or the Lexus, and we’d be meeting all those good horses on level weights. The Hennessy was the obvious race.”

Meade has known Hennessy heartache before. Harbour Pilot 2002, the Kays Syndicate’s horse had travelled and jumped well through the race, and he had just about put his head in front on the run to the final fence. Paul Carberry saw a stride, one, two, up, only Harbour Pilot didn’t. The horse wasn’t certain, he took another little stride for himself, got in too close, and belted the middle of the fence. He did well to stand on his feet, but he lost all momentum and all chance, and he did well to stay on to pass the post in third place.

“That was a tough one,” rues the trainer. “If he had jumped the last, he surely would have won. The Hennessy is a great race, it’s one of those old races, steeped in tradition and with big prize money. It would be a great one to win.”

You can tell that the trainer struggles to curb his enthusiasm when he talks about Pandorama. Phrases like nice horse and good chance mask the regard in which he holds the son of Flemensfirth to an extent, but they don’t conceal it completely. His body language gives it away. The thought that he puts into the adjectives that he uses, the effort to side-step the superlatives. He remembers going down to see the horse, on the instigation of then owner and trainer John Halley, after he had won his point-to-point at Dungarvan, and being impressed.

“I was after buying Parsons Pistol from John the previous year,” recalls Meade. “He was a good horse, but John told me that this fellow was better. He asked me a price for him, and I just said okay. There were a good few people interested in him at the time, so I didn’t bid John or offer him a price, I just said grand, I’d have him at that. I think a couple of people might have been disappointed that they didn’t get a second chance to bid.”

Pandorama won his two bumpers, won his maiden hurdle and a Grade 2 novices’ hurdle, then got beaten by Mikael D’Haguenet in the Grade 1 Barry & Sandra Kelly Memorial Hurdle at Navan in mid-December 2008. Most people were disappointed with that, as most people usually are when a 2/7 shot gets beaten, but Meade wasn’t too preturbed. Mikael D’Haguenet, Willie Mullins’s horse, had beaten his Realt Dubh three weeks previously, and he knew how good Realt Dubh was.

Meade caught Willie’s attention on the walk back to the winner’s enclosure.

“That’s the best novice you have,” he told Willie.

Willie twisted his face in a do-you-really-think-so way.

“I’m telling you,” said Meade. “I know how good my fellow is, and how good Realt Dubh is. He’s your best.”

Mikael D’Haguenet won his next four, two Grade 2s and two Grade 1s, including the Ballymore Hurdle at the 2008 Cheltenham Festival.

Pandorama didn’t go to the 2008 Cheltenham Festival. He won the Grade 1 Deloitte Hurdle at Leopardstown that February – probably fortuitously as Cousin Vinny departed at the last, apparently with the race in the bag – and Meade toyed with the idea of going to Cheltenham, but he wasn’t sure. He and Paul Carberry discussed it at the Texaco Sports Awards the following week.

“Cheltenham is probably not the thing for him this season,” ventured Paul. “He could win the Ballymore, but he would be on top of his head the whole way, and it wouldn’t do him any good. This fellow could be a Gold Cup horse. Why would you risk ruining his chance of winning a Gold Cup?”

It was rhetorical. Pandorama stayed at home.

Meade doesn’t say it, but this is his Gold Cup year. He is seven, he will be eight next March, the ideal age for a Gold Cup horse. He won all three of the novice chases that he contested last year, including the Grade 1 Knight Frank Chase at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival, when he beat subsequent RSA Chase winner Weapon’s Amnesty by a short head. His potential is boundless.

The road that will take him deep into this National Hunt season starts at Newbury on Saturday. Noel Meade will be watching from the stands, nervous again.

© The Sunday Times, 21st November 2010