Donn's Articles » Gigginstown House Stud and Cheltenham

Gigginstown House Stud and Cheltenham

Strange the way this game can pick you up one moment, then kick you out over the sideline the next.

Last weekend was an important one for Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown House Stud, with two of their most exciting novice chasers, Bog Warrior and Last Instalment, bidding to embed the deep impression that they had made earlier in the season.

Bog Warrior won at Naas on Saturday. Not only that, but he jumped and travelled with the supreme ease of the top class chaser that many suspect he is, and he coasted home from useful if not brilliant rivals without coming out of a common canter.

Last Instalment also won at Leopardstown on Sunday. He didn’t do it quite as easily as Bog Warrior did, but the opposition was stronger and the distance was shorter than ideal. Also, the accuracy and the enthusiasm with which he tackled the six fences down Leopardstown’s back straight confirmed his status as one of the most exciting young steeplechasers in training, and the manner in which he quickened away from the final fence to repel the challenge of the highly-talented Call The Police proved that he had pace as well as stamina.

Gates Of Rome’s long-awaited victory in a beginners’ chase at Naas was merely the cherry on top of the icing on top of the weekend cake for Gigginstown.

The kicks came on Wednesday. Morning newsflash: Quito De La Roque would miss the Cheltenham Gold Cup. The sinus problem that had ruled him out of Sunday’s Hennessy Gold Cup, the one for which he was on a course of antibiotics, was not going to heal in time for Colm Murphy to prepare him for Cheltenham. Aintree or Punchestown maybe, but Cheltenham – no way.

The harder kick was delayed until Wednesday evening. Last Instalment was out for the season. RSA Chase hopes, Powers Gold Cup hopes, Cheltenham, Aintree, Punchestown, Fairyhouse, all up in smoke. “He jarred both tendons and he is on the easy list,” said his downbeat-trying-to-be-upbeat trainer Philip Fenton. “He won’t run again this season. Hopefully he will be back next year.”

When it comes to horses and racing, Michael O’Leary is no stranger to sickening body-blows. The spark that ignited racing’s flame for the owner was Tuco, the first horse to ever race in the now ubiquitous Gigginstown House colours. Tuco won his only bumper on his racecourse debut at Fairyhouse in 2001, he won his maiden hurdle, in which he beat subsequent Grand National winner and Gold Cup runner-up Hedgehunter, and he followed up by winning a Grade 3 hurdle at Naas. Then, at Fairyhouse on 1st April 2002, Tuco fell at the third last flight in the prestigious Powers Gold Label Novices’ Hurdle at Fairyhouse. Fatally.

It would have been understandable if O’Leary had pulled stumps then, if he had decided that this racehorse ownership thing was not for him, taken his money and invested it in something less precarious. Thankfully for Irish racing, he took the contrary path. He decided, if a similar fate was to once again befall a horse of his, that there would be other horses. Under the direction of his brother Eddie, he bought a half a dozen more. Among that batch was 2006 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner War Of Attrition, and the spark had become a raging inferno.

Sitting in O’Leary’s office in Dublin Airport in March 2010, two Styrofoam cups of tea on the table between us (“No expense spared here!”), the Ryanair boss pointed to the picture on the cabinet behind his desk of War Of Attrition and Conor O’Dwyer jumping the final fence in that Gold Cup, Hedgehunter and Ruby Walsh in vain pursuit, and declared that he should have stopped then. You win a Gold Cup, what do you do then? How do you top that?

It wasn’t so much a question as a statement of fact. You don’t top it. You just go back and do it again.

The Cheltenham Gold Cup is the race that defines Gigginstown House Stud. There are few horses who race under the maroon and white silks who don’t have the scope to make up into top staying chasers. The Gigginstown bumper horses are embryo chasers; the hurdlers are just biding their time.

Gold Cup hero War Of Attrition had the pace to run Brave Inca to a neck in the 2004 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, but it was always as a staying steeplechaser that he was going to make his mark. Weapon’s Amnesty’s victory in the Albert Bartlett Hurdle in 2009 was a nice prize to pick up on his way back to Cheltenham the following year to fulfill his true calling and win the RSA Chase.

It is not a coincidence that the majority of the top races on the Gigginstown cv – the Gold Cup, the Irish Grand National, the Drinmore Chase, the RSA Chase, the Powers Gold Cup, the Fort Leney Chase, the James Nicholson Chase, the Punchestown Gold Cup – are staying steeplechases. Nor is it surprising, given the rich source from whence the Gigginstown equine talent tends to spring. War Of Attrition, Kill Devil Hill, One Cool Cookie, Hear The Echo, First Lieutenant, Quito De La Roque, Last Instalment: all graduates of the Irish point-to-pointing fields.

Even in Last Instalment’s absence, Team Gigginstown for Cheltenham 2012 is still over-run with potentially top class novice chasers: so richly endowed with talent that the loss of potentially the most talented may not be an insurmountable blow.

First Lieutenant is bang on track for the RSA Chase. Last year’s Neptune Hurdle winner, he has been beaten three times in five runs over fences this season to date, but there have been excuses, and his latest run to finish second to Last Instalment in the Fort Leney Chase at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival was full of encouragement.

Mouse Morris is giving him the War Of Attrition preparation – lots of match practice before Christmas, then prepare him from home, take him to Cheltenham a fresh horse without a run that calendar year. A son of Presenting, he should bounce off the probable good ground, and the fact that he is proven at the track and under Cheltenham Festival conditions is a huge asset for him to take with him in his overnight bag.

He could be joined in the RSA Chase by Sir Des Champs, also a winner over hurdles at last year’s Festival. Three for three over hurdles last season, the Willie Mullins-trained gelding is three for three over fences this term. He continues to progress with every race, and he stayed on really well on his latest run to get the better of Fists Of Fury and Hidden Cyclone at Leopardstown. He has the pace for the two-and-a-half-mile Jewson Chase, but his racing style suggests that he would also have the stamina for the RSA Chase.

Bog Warrior could also run in the RSA Chase, or in the Jewson, or even in the Arkle. A winner twice over two miles this term, and once over two and a half, Tony Martin says that he is probably the best he has ever trained. One of the most exciting novice chasers in training, he is probably well-named, he is probably at his best with at least a little cut in the ground, so a drop of rain on Prestbury Park would be a welcome development.

It may be all about the chasers, but the Gigginstown novice hurdlers – headed by Midnight Game, Trifolium, Sea Of Thunder and Make Your Mark – are not shaping up too badly either.

Another Gold Cup will have to wait. Much patience needed here. For Gigginstown this year, it’s all about the novices.

© The Sunday Times, 19th February 2012