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Robbie Power

Sitting in the foyer of a Maynooth hotel, Robbie Power is telling you why he wasn’t disappointed with Oscars Well’s defeat at Down Royal two weeks ago.

“We thought that he was fit enough physically,” he is saying, “but he hadn’t been wound up mentally at all. He is a horse who comes along in his own time, you can’t force him. Like, on his seasonal debut last year, he got beaten by a horse who is now rated 111, and he won his maiden hurdle 10 days later. He improves with racing as the season goes on. Jessie knows that. We saw that last year, and we’re hoping for the same this year.”

Jessie is Jessie Harrington, trainer of Oscars Well, trainer of Bostons Angel, trainer of Steps To Freedom, the three main reasons why her rider is the child who has just opened the door to Willy Wonka’s house, the National Hunt season stretching out in front of him like a hallway lined with everlasting gobstoppers. It may look like Power is sitting in the foyer of a hotel in Maynooth but, really, he is sitting on top of the world.

“He travelled like a dream at Down Royal.” Still talking about Oscars Well. “He just got tired towards the end, and I wasn’t going to knock him about once it was obvious that he couldn’t win. He has an unbelievable cruising speed. Because of that, I think the drop down to two miles will suit him this year. We started him off last year over two and a half, he didn’t seem to be a quick horse then, but as the season went on, he just got quicker and quicker. Even in his work he got quicker. We were half wondering after Cheltenham last March, should we have gone for the two-mile novices’ race instead of the two-and-a-half-mile race. He hadn’t even been entered in the two-mile race. Just shows you. We didn’t think he had enough speed for it at the time.”

Cheltenham last March, field of dreams, harbinger of nightmares. Power thought he was certain to bag his first Cheltenham Festival winner when he asked Oscars Well to pick up at the final flight in the Neptune Hurdle. The horse picked up all right, sailed over the obstacle in front, planted his forelegs safely on the ground on the landing side. Then, calamity. For some still unknown reason, his hind legs didn’t follow. Oscars Well lost them as he landed, and with them his chance.

“I’m sure that he would have won,” says the rider now, still rueful. “He was pricking his ears going to the final flight, he had plenty left to give. The fact that he was able to remain upright, and stay on up the hill to finish fourth, tells you that he had plenty of energy left. I have watched the video hundreds of times since, and I still couldn’t tell you why it happened. It was just one of those things.”

Power had waited eight years after his first ride at the Cheltenham Festival for this, to have the victory rug pulled from under his feet. Ironic, then, that he only had to wait another half an hour to put the rug back in place, and tread it all the way into the winner’s enclosure. He left his disappointment in Cheltenham’s weigh room, took some words of encouragement from Jessica Harrington with him (“Don’t worry about that, this one will win”), went out on the 16/1 shot Bostons Angel in the very next race, and saw off all-comers to land the RSA Chase.

It was like missing a penalty kick, then scoring with a volley from the resultant corner.

It was for such moments that Power decided to abandon his career as a highly promising young show jumper to concentrate on life as a National Hunt jockey, trading poles and stealth for birch and speed. Less risky, he tells you. The leading pony show jumping rider for three years in a row as a teenager, he won the Derby at Millstreet, the championship at the Dublin Horse Show, and the European Silver Medal in Belgium, and he was one of a hugely promising group of young Irish riders. Even so, he decided that it wasn’t for him.

“I was living in Essex,” he recalls, “travelling to all the shows. It was all a bit much. And I didn’t think that I was going to be able to secure the sponsorship that I would have needed to enable me compete at the level that I wanted to compete at, so I decided to give it up and come home to give racing a go.”

He started riding out for Paddy Mullins and Jessica Harrington, and it wasn’t long before big-race success followed. Nearly A Moose in the 2003 Galway Plate, Intelligent in the 2003 Midlands Grand National, Colca Canyon in the 2004 Munster National, Carigeen Victor in the 2005 Dr PJ Moriarty Chase. And such was Power’s reputation and ability that, when Jason Maguire was committed to riding Idle Talk for Donald McCain in the 2007 Aintree Grand National, Gordon Elliott had no hesitation in allowing Power to ride Silver Birch. Check the record books: he won that too.

Power doesn’t regret the time that he spent show jumping when he could have been building his career as a jockey. On the contrary, he values it greatly, he’s sure it is a huge help to him now as a National Hunt rider.

“Of course racing and show jumping are very different in lots of ways,” he says thoughtfully. “But both of them are about presenting a horse to an obstacle correctly, and I have no doubt that show jumping has helped me an awful lot in that regard.”

In truth, it would have been surprising if Power had not been an accomplished show jumper. His dad, Con Power, was one of the top riders in Ireland in what was a golden era for Irish show jumping. Then Captain Con Power, he was a member of the Irish team – along with Eddie Macken, James Kernan and the late Paul Darragh – who won the Aga Khan Trophy three years in a row from 1977 to 1979. Con Power had started to train racehorses, but a freak accident at a show in Dundalk in 1989, when he was hit on the head by a stirrup from a loose horse, left him in a coma for weeks, and brought a cruel end to his second career.

“I don’t remember the accident really,” says Robbie. “I was only seven or eight at the time. But I do remember my aunt telling me to pray for my dad, to pray that he would pull through. Thankfully he did.”

Given his experience, and his understanding of horses and riding, it is not surprising that Robbie values the pearls of advice that sporadically drop from his dad’s lips.

“Dad’s big thing is that you have to be confident,” says Robbie. “If you are going for a stride, go for it fully expecting the horse to respond, don’t half go for it hoping that he will. When I got unseated off Roberto Goldback at the last fence in the Punchestown Gold Cup there last April with the race in the bag, I was sure my dad was going to tell me what I had done wrong, but he didn’t. He just told me that the horse didn’t do it for me, that there was nothing more I could have done. That made the incident a lot easier to bear.”

Things have rarely been going better for Power. Jessica Harrington has a yard that is brimming with quality, and he is riding good horses for Colm Murphy. This afternoon, Power bids to add another Grade 1 race to his burgeoning CV when he rides Oscars Well in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown.

“We know that he was one of the best novice hurdlers around last year,” he says thoughtfully. “He has summered really well, he has come on for his run at Down Royal, and his work at home now is about a stone better than it was at this time last year. I’m very hopeful.”

He could have the golden ticket.

© The Sunday Times, 20th November 2011