Things We Learned » Jonjo’s spirit soars

Jonjo’s spirit soars

Last weekend at Cheltenham, it was all about the trainers.

Jonjo O’Neill obviously made the headlines when Johns Spirit won the Paddy Power Gold Cup under Richie McLernon. Jonjo never won the Paddy Power as a rider, but he did win it once before as a trainer, with Exotic Dancer, who would have won a Gold Cup, a King George and a Betfair Chase had Kauto Star not been born in the same year or into the same era or raced in the same country. Incidentally, Exotic Dancer, like Johns Spirit, was six when he won the Paddy Power. He was the last six-year-old to win it before Saturday. It is probably unrealistic to expect that Johns Spirit will go on to scale Exotic Dancer’s heights, but you never know. And there is no Kauto Star around these days.

This is developing into quite a season for Jonjo. Johns Spirit was his 91st winner of the season, taking him past his total for all of last season of 90, and we are only just getting into the teeth of this term. It was also quite a weekend for Jackdaw’s Castle, with Taquin Du Seuil beating Oscar Whisky in the Steel Plate and Sections Novices’ Chase on Friday, and Shutthefrontdoor running so well in defeat behind Le Bec in the three-mile novices’ chase on Saturday. There is the promise of much more to come from JP McManus’ horse.

Speaking of JP, it was ironic that his horse Colour Squadron was the one to chase Johns Spirit home in the Paddy Power. JP joked afterwards about putting up Jonjo’s rent at Jackdaw’s Castle as a result, but you can be certain that landlord was delighted for tenant.

Jonjo has spoken often of wanting to increase the breadth of his owners at Jackdaw’s, of the fact that he is not a private trainer for JP. To that end, the fact that his two high-profile winners on a high-profile weekend were owned by Christopher Johnston and Martin Broughton respectively will do him no harm.

Fergal flies

Fergal O’Brien is another trainer who, like Jonjo, eclipsed the total number of winners that he accumulated last season over the weekend. O’Brien had four runners at Cheltenham. Mister Bricolage, 14th in the novices’ handicap hurdle on Friday (well he was a 100/1 shot), Alvarado and Bradley, first and third in the Murphy Group Chase on Saturday, and The Govaness, winner of the mares’ bumper.

During the seven days that preceded Cheltenham’s Open meeting, O’Brien had four winners, a second and a third from nine runners. Five minutes before The Govaness won at Cheltenham, Gunner Fifteen won the bumper at Uttoxeter.

Former head lad with Nigel Twiston-Davies, now training out of Timmy Murphy’s Cilldara Stables, O’Brien has had 32 winners from 171 runners this season to date, which represents an impressive strike rate of 19% and a more impressive level stakes profit of €82.61. In November so far, he has had nine winners from 33 runners, a strike rate of 28%, for a level-stakes profit of €56.30. He has excelled in the further development of established racehorses like Silver Roque, who has improved by 30lb since joining O’Brien, and with youngsters like Gunner Fifteen and The Govaness and Pitter Patter, and he remains a trainer to keep on side.

Irish weekend

The Tony Martin-trained Quick Jack was the only Irish winner at Cheltenham over the weekend, but there were some notable performances in defeat. The Shark Hanlon-trained Hidden Cyclone did really well to finish third in the Paddy Power Gold Cup, especially given that he raced handily throughout in a race that was probably run to suit the hold-up horses.

Rawnaq and Flaxen Flare both but up sounds performances to finish third and fourth respectively in the Greatwood Hurdle, while the Dessie Hughes-trained Guitar Pete was the only one who could give Royal Irish Hussar a race in the juvenile hurdle.

Willie Mullins didn’t have any winners at Cheltenham, although Uncle Junior went close in the Cross-Country, and if the gavel had fallen a different way, he might have won the Greatwood Hurdle. The champion trainer still obviously had a remarkable weekend, however, with three winners at Punchestown on Saturday, including an impressive chasing bow by last season’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle winner Champagne Fever, and seven winners on Sunday between Punchestown and Cork, including Hurricane Fly’s record-breaking victory in the Morgiana Hurdle.

Seven of Mullins’ winners over the weekend were ridden by Ruby Walsh, including Champagne Fever and Hurricane Fly. Ruby even managed to get himself to Cheltenham on Friday to ride Quick Jack for Tony Martin, one ride, one win, when he won the race back to the winner’s enclosure by a longer distance than the distance by which he won the race to the winning line. At Cheltenham, Ruby’s old boss Paul Nicholls had one winner – Dodging Bullets in the Arkle Trial – from 17 runners. It’s a re-building phase for Nicholls, who has a clutch of exciting young horses, but it’s full-steam-ahead phase (again) for Mullins.

Pipe rollercoaster

David Pipe had a Friday to forget, a Saturday to forget and a Sunday to remember.

In many ways, the Cheltenham November meeting is a flagpole for the Pipe flag. Raiders from Pond House invariably arrive with their screws fully tightened and leave with the booty. So no wins from 10 runners on Friday and Saturday was an unusual return for the Nicholashayne outfit.

Then Sunday came along. Home Run and Western Warhorse finished first and second in the opening conditional jockeys’ handicap hurdle, returned at 40/1 and 14/1 respectively. Then The Liquidator won the Sharp Novices’ Hurdle and Dell’ Arca won the Greatwood Hurdle, and the day and the meeting was rounded off nicely with Red Sherlock’s win in the bumper. Business as usual.

Fitting finale

Victory for Red Sherlock, bred, as he was, by the late David Johnson, with Timmy Murphy wearing the famous blue and green colours, in the concluding bumper on Sunday was a fitting end to the 2013 Cheltenham November meeting.

As with the Pipe name, this is the meeting that is more synonymous with the Johnson colours than any other. Not only did David Johnson own six of the 10 Paddy Power Gold Cup winners between 1996 and 2005, but his colours were usually omnipresent in the winner’s enclosure throughout the meeting.

Fitting too that, just as AP McCoy’s 4000th winner was archetypal McCoy, so Red Sherlock’s win as archetypal Murphy. At Cheltenham, when most go inside, Murphy often goes outside. When most go outside, Murphy often goes inside. “It’s just something that I do,” he told Racing UK as he walked back to the weighing room.

On Red Sherlock he was so tight to the inside that he had to move back to his right to get inside some of the hurdle wings. On the run down the hill, it looked like he was going to jump the third last fence, and he probably would have jumped the old second last had it still been there. But it worked, as it often does with Murphy. He is one of those thinking jockeys.

Fitting, also, that Murphy himself looked after Red Sherlock as he grew and strengthened during the summer, and that the Shirocco gelding was bred by David Johnson, out of Lady Cricket, winner of the Paddy Power Gold Cup in 2000.

© The Irish Field, 23rd November 2013