Donn's Articles » Robbie Hennessy

Robbie Hennessy

It was Philip Carberry who first told Robbie Hennessy about Rubi Light. A nice young French horse who jumped well and who could progress to do very well in Ireland, he had said.

Hennessy trusted Carberry’s judgement. Reared and nurtured on Irish racing but now based in France, Carberry was ideally positioned to source young French jumpers with potential, horses who were equipped to be effective under Ireland’s National Hunt code.

The relationship between rider and trainer had developed over the years, cemented by the success story that was Sublimity, owned by Robbie’s dad Bill, trained by John Carr when he won the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham in 2007, trained by Robbie Hennessy when he won the December Festival Hurdle at Leopardstown in 2008, the fledgling trainer’s first Grade 1 win. Ridden by Philip Carberry in both.

So when Carberry told Hennessy about Francois Cottin’s horse Rubi Light, and told him that he should come out to France to have a look at him, Hennessy told the rider to go ahead and buy him if he could, that he didn’t need to see the horse if Carberry liked him that much.

The first time that Hennessy saw Rubi Light was when the horse walked out of the horse box and into his yard at Ratoath in County Meath in the summer of 2009, a gangly 17.2hh adolescent who had plenty of developing to do and plenty of frame to fill.

“We’d better start feeding this fellow.”

Hennessy put Rubi Light into the sand ring, let him have a roll, let him relax and unwind after his journey, and went out on the gallop to work a couple of other horses. They were just circling at the bottom of the gallop, about a half a mile from the yard, when the trainer looked around and saw this big familiar gangly frame galloping up towards them.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he laughs. “He had to jump over a five-bar gate to get out of the sand ring, and it is not a big ring, he wouldn’t have been able to have a good run at it. At least we knew then that he could jump.”

Carberry came over from France to ride Rubi Light in his first race in Ireland the following December, in a hurdle race at Navan, his first in Bill Hennessy’s famous Sublimity colours, when he ran well to finish a close third. Then he went out two weeks later, in another hurdle race at Limerick’s Christmas meeting, and beat subsequent Grade 2 winner Magnanimity by 12 lengths.

“Whatever he did over hurdles,” says Hennessy, “I always knew that he was going to be even better over fences. He was only going to get better for going over larger obstacles. He jumped his hurdles like fences. If you watch him closely even over a fence now, he has a peculiar way of jumping, he kind of throws his front legs out in front of him. He’s more like a cat than a horse. But it’s really effective. He’s a super jumper.”

Rubi Light didn’t surprise his trainer, then, when he won on his Irish chasing bow at Sligo in September last year, nor when he followed up by winning at Punchestown in November. Two pillar-to-post victories, two exhibition rounds of jumping, that told anyone who cared to look or listen that this was a steeplechaser who was destined for bigger things.

In one sense, it was a pity that he wasn’t eligible for novice chases last year. His sole win over fences in France was just outside the cut-off point for novice status in Ireland and Britain. In another, however, it was a godsend for Hennessy. If he had been a novice, the trainer reckons, most of the big players would have been interested in him, the players for whom money is no barrier, and he would probably have been pushed beyond their price range. That said, he would be lying if he told you that there weren’t times last season that he didn’t wish that they could race him against novices, that he could target one of the novice races at the Cheltenham Festival.

Cheltenham seemed like a long way away for him anyway when Rubi Light got well beaten on his return visit to Limerick last December.

“He came home a sick horse that day,” says his trainer. “And he was only about 70% fit as a result when he finished second to Golden Silver at Fairyhouse the following month. People said afterwards that he was flattered to get so close to Golden Silver, but we knew that he was even better than that. We fancied him very strongly for the Red Mills Chase at Gowran Park after that.”

Cheltenham was on their mind, but really the horse had to win the Red Mills in order to book his ticket. The ground was heavy that day at Gowran, almost unraceable, ideal for Rubi Light with his big feet and his proven affinity for mud. He did win, he won by 10 lengths from good horses like Roberto Goldback and Scotsirish and Follow The Plan, and muscled his way onto the Irish Cheltenham team.

The Ryanair Chase was the obvious race for him at Cheltenham, but, even after winning the Red Mills, Hennessy was unsure about Cheltenham because of the probability of fast ground. He walked the track on the morning of the race with his rider Andrew Lynch, and decided to allow him take his chance. The ground was fast enough, it wasn’t ideal for Rubi Light, but they had put plenty of water on the track, and trainer and rider concluded that it was safe. Rubi Light ran out of his skin in the Ryanair to finish a close-up third behind Cheltenham perennial Albertas Run.

“We were thrilled with him,” says Hennessy proudly. “He actually jumped the third last in front, but he had his nose cut off going around the home turn, he just didn’t have the pace on that ground to hold his position. Then he stayed on really well up the hill. He ran a hell of a race.”

This season hasn’t quite gone to plan to date. He had the Pricewaterhousecoopers Chase at Gowran Park in the bag in October, reigning Champion Chaser Sizing Europe beaten all ends up, when he fell at the final fence. Then he was on track for the Champion Chase at Down Royal in early November when a viral infection ruled him out. After that, the Betfair Chase at Haydock was the plan, but they had to draw stumps on that one at the 11th hour as well.

“He worked at The Curragh during the week before the Haydock race, and Andrew (Lynch) got off him and said that he just didn’t feel 100 per cent. If it had been an ordinary race down the road, we might have taken a chance, but when you’re talking about going over to England to take on Kauto Star and Long Run, you have to be 100 per cent, and it just wasn’t worth the risk.”

It was a brave call. When you are a small trainer with a small team and one stable star, the temptation to run must be nigh on irresistible. Hennessy doesn’t have a choice of representatives in these big races, he is not Willie Mullins or Noel Meade or Paul Nicholls or Nicky Henderson, if Rubi Light doesn’t run, Hennessy doesn’t run. He could have taken the chance, lined up against Kauto Star and Long Run, the big time, the cameras and the lights, but the horse’s wellbeing came first. His patience could be rewarded this afternoon, when his horse lines up in the John Durkan Chase at Punchestown.

“He’s in great order now,” says Hennessy. “He has schooled well since his fall, and we were very happy with him. Andrew rode him work at Dundalk on Sunday, and he went really well. The John Durka Chase is a tough race, but we’re very hopeful.”

He could be celebrating his second Grade 1 win this evening.

© The Sunday Times, 11th December 2011