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Lord Windermere

Cheltenham, March 2014, Jim Culloty watched the Gold Cup from the parade ring on the big screen, owner Dr Ronan Lambe beside him, his thoughts doing somersaults in his head.

This was new ground. When Culloty used to ride Best Mate in the Gold Cup, it would all be in his hands. Three times Henrietta Knight sent him and Best Mate out onto the racecourse before the Gold Cup, and all three times Culloty came home with the booty.

It was relief more than ecstasy on those occasions. The weight of expectation dictated: well, that didn’t go too badly.

This time, different story. This time, it was Culloty who was entrusting his horse to somebody else for the duration of the race. This time, he was relying on Davy Russell to steer his horse around the track, chart the most efficient path, as he stood and watched, helpless, from the parade ring.

“The plan was always to get him settled in the race,” recalls the trainer. “I didn’t think that he would be as far back as Davy had him, I wouldn’t have chosen to have had him four or five lengths behind the second last horse. We did agree, though, that he would get him settled in a position and at a pace at which he would be comfortable, and that’s what Davy did.”

Going past the winning post with a circuit to go, Lord Windermere was still last, but Culloty was happy. Down the back straight, over the fifth last, over the fourth last, and his trainer thought, we’re still travelling well here you know. Down the hill and over the third last and around the home turn, Lord Windermere starts to make his ground from the back, and you start to dream.

“He’s not a slow horse. Any jockey who has ever sat on him, they think, this is a slow old horse, we need to make plenty of use of him. But he’s not slow. He is lazy, but he’s not slow. There’s a difference.”

Culloty was happy with Lord Winderemere in the lead up to the Gold Cup. He knew that he was an outsider, but there were three reasons why he was sure that he would run better than odds of 20/1 suggested. First, he knew he had his horse in better form than he had had him all year. Culloty himself rode him out in the mornings over at Cheltenham in the days leading up to the race, and the horse was bouncing. He was barely rideable, he was so well.

Second, he was back at Cheltenham, a track at which he was proven. He was one for one there, an RSA Chase victory in the bag and no defeats. And third, he thought he had the tactics right. They had ridden him handily in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown on his final run before Cheltenham, and it didn’t work out. Ride him in behind in the Gold Cup, they had decided, get him into a nice rhythm, ride him to finish. This horse has a turn of foot, it’s just a case of deploying it at the right stage of a race.

Lord Windermere landed over the final fence, Davy Russell asked him for maximum effort, and the horse gave it. He actually struck the front about 100 yards from the winning line, and then it was a case of hanging on. The horse thought that he had done enough. Russell said afterwards that he could feel him coming back underneath him. Multiply those 100 yards by the steepness of the Cheltenham hill and the magnitude of a Gold Cup, and you might as well be 100 miles from the winning post. Then it’s a case of scrambling. He scrambled home by a short head.

There was also the drama of the stewards’ inquiry that followed. Culloty was preoccupied with his horse, with making sure that Lord Windermere was all right, so he didn’t have time to think about the ongoing stewards’ inquiry too deeply.

“Underneath it all,” says the trainer slowly, “I was happy that he had run such a big race. Even if the stewards had disqualified him, he had still run a massive race, he had still proven that he deserved to be there. That was the main thing for me, that was the main thought in my head. Then they announced that the result stood, and we could celebrate.”

It was Culloty himself – now one of just four people who have both ridden and trained a Gold Cup winner – who bought Lord Windermere, an untried four-year-old, at the Cheltenham sale in December 2010.

“Pat Doyle and I were walking around that sale that day, and we thought, there is nothing worth buying here. Then they pulled this fellow out, and we both looked at each other: well at least there’s one horse here. I didn’t have a lot of money to spend, I went way over budget on him. I’d say the £75,000 for which I bought him was my last bid.”

While he didn’t buy him specifically for Dr Lambe, it was Dr Lambe whom the trainer had in mind. Culloty rode the owner’s first ever winner – Zeroberto in a novices’ hurdle at the 2004 Galway Festival – after which Dr Lambe said that he would send him a horse or two if and when he started training. It is a relationship that has flourished.

Today, in the John Durkan Chase at Punchestown, Lord Windermere takes the first step into the 2014/15 season on a road that will hopefully lead back to the Cheltenham Gold Cup in March.

“The two-and-a-half-mile trip is shorter than ideal today, and this is just a starting point for him, he is certain to come on for the run. But we have had a clear run with him through the summer, and he is very well.”

The defence of his Cheltenham Gold Cup title is Lord Windermere’s ultimate aim this season. Interestingly, the last horse to win back-to-back Gold Cups was Best Mate, and Best Mate was ridden by Jim Culloty.

© The Sunday Times, 7th December 2014