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Henry de Bromhead

We have been here before. Twelve months ago today, Henry de Bromhead brought Sizing Europe to Punchestown to take on Big Zeb in the Tied Cottage Chase.

The season hadn’t really gone to plan. A fine second to Kauto Star in the Champion Chase at Down Royal the previous November had been followed by an abortive trip to Kempton to contest the King George on St Stephen’s Day. The race was postponed at the 11th hour, but Europe hadn’t travelled over well, and there was no way de Bromhead was going to bring him back again two weeks later when the horse wasn’t ready to run for his life. All the planning by the trainer, all the travelling, all the heartache, Christmas Day spent away from his pregnant wife and his 18-month-old twins, and all for a race that wasn’t.

It didn’t do Europe any good either. The son of Pistolet Bleu isn’t ordinarily a great traveller, and when he does travel he has to have everything in order, an equine Melvin Udall: everything smooth, a horse either side of him in the horsebox, regular breaks for a leg-stretch and a pick of grass. The trip over and back took plenty out of him, even without a race.

Gold Cup thoughts were put on ice after the King George that wasn’t, and sights were trained on the Queen Mother Champion Chase. Last year’s Tied Cottage Chase was the ideal springboard, but it was his first run in three months, and his trainer was hopeful. That’s all, just hopeful.

Sizing Europe’s owner, Alan Potts, had had a replica made of the perpetual Arkle trophy that his horse had won in 2010 – cast iron on granite, heavier than a small child – and he brought it along with him to Punchestown that day. It was the centrepiece in the room as the horse’s owner, trainer, and rider Andrew Lynch discussed plans at the end of the day, beaten but not broken after their horse had finished third, seven lengths behind Golden Silver and Big Zeb.

Discussion over, sights trained on Cheltenham, de Bromhead picked up the Arkle trophy, and looked at the owner and the jockey.

“This time next year, we’ll be carrying out the Queen Mother’s head as well.”

Now, almost 12 months on, the trainer pats Sizing Europe – Queen Mother Champion Chase trophy in the bag – on the neck and laughs at the recollection.

“Of course we were disappointed to get beaten in last year’s Tied Cottage,” he says. “You are always disappointed when you get beaten. But that real winter ground doesn’t suit Europe’s style of racing. When they go slow on that ground and then quicken, like they did in this race last year, he can struggle. I knew that he would be a different horse back off a fast pace on good ground at Cheltenham.”

Sizing Europe pricks his ears. Standing in the small enclosure outside his box, literally his back yard, docile as a 16.3hh lamb, rug on his back, at peace with the world, you would never guess that the horse standing in front of you, at ease in the Waterford sunshine, is a monster on the racetrack – the fastest two-mile steeplechaser in training.

“We knew going to Cheltenham last year that we had a big chance,” continues the trainer. “He had won the Arkle the previous year, beating Somersby, who had nearly beaten Master Minded in the Victor Chandler Chase. Big Zeb was the reigning Champion Chaser, and the only time we had met him prior to the Tied Cottage last year, we had beaten him in a novices’ hurdle. We went close to winning a Champion Hurdle, and we’re a chasing type. So once we had the ground and the horse was right, while I fear everything, you knew that we were going to run a solid race.”

An Arkle and a Champion Chase in the bag, they flirted with three miles again this season, allowing Sizing Europe make his debut again in the Champion Chase at Down Royal.

“We thought that there was a chance that he wasn’t jumping as well over three miles because he was going at a slower pace,” says Henry. “So at Down Royal, we said, right, ride him aggressively, ride him up there. If he stays, great, if he doesn’t, at least then we’ll know that he doesn’t. Some people gave Andrew a hard time afterwards for riding him too aggressively, but he rode him exactly as we wanted him to. To the letter. Ride him like a two-miler, see if he goes for three. And we know now, he goes for two miles and six furlongs on heavy ground.

“I think that he’s a very special horse. He could easily be a three-miler, especially on good ground. But if he was always having a slog over three miles, like he had at Down Royal, then he’s not going to last long. I don’t care what race we win at Cheltenham, but I want to go for the race that we have the best chance of winning. He’s the two-mile Champion Chaser, he has been there and done it, and, until he just gets too slow for it, well then stick to it. Maybe he’ll be too slow for it this year. Maybe not.”

It has been a good season so far for de Bromhead. Best yet. Of course, Sizing Europe has been his flagship, his scintillating win in the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown in December the highlight of the season so far, but there have been others, like Days Hotel and Sizing Symphony and Berties Dream. Sadly, hugely exciting prospect Days Hotel is out for the season, but it is nothing major, and he should be back next term. Berties Dream, the 2010 Albert Bartlett Hurdle hero, continues to progress as a staying novice chaser, while last year’s Cheltenham Festival Cross-Country Chase winner, Sizing Australia, is on his way back and on track to mount a stern defence of his crown.

Sizing Europe’s owner Alan Potts is still integral to de Bromhead’s operation, he has been a massive supporter since the beginning, but, significantly, it is not uncommon these days to see the Potts colours carried by other trainers’ horses. By the same token, more and more, you see de Bromhead-trained horses clad in other people’s colours.

The trainer has had 22 winners in Ireland this season to date, three more than last year’s total and just one shy of his best ever for an entire season. Add that to Sizing Europe’s Tingle Creek and Sizing Symphony’s victory at Cheltenham’s October meeting, and you know that progress is definite. Have a look around you. New gallops, new indoor school, some nice new young horses, and the future looks bright.

That future starts today. The trainer is obviously hopeful that Sizing Europe can go and win the Tied Cottage, but you sense that it won’t be the end of the world if he doesn’t.

“We’re hopeful of a good run on Sunday,” says the trainer slowly, “you always want to win. After that though, he has his programme for Cheltenham. He doesn’t need a lot of training, so the most important thing is to keep him happy, fresh and healthy.”

One year on, today could be the ideal springboard once again.

© The Sunday Times, 5th February 2012