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Michael Winters

Michael Winters is talking about goats.

“I was feeding in the yard the other day and next thing I get this ram up the backside!  This goat is only two months old, she’s only finding her way around the yard.  I looked out later on that evening, and Rebel Fitz had a hold of the goat by the ear.  The goat looking up at him.”

And just like the environment around him, Rebel Fitz is laid back.  He gets a bit excited when he sees the crowds at Galway, when he hears the noise, when he sees the colour.  But he doesn’t sweat up or anything, he just comes alive.

“If it had been another horse, a horse with a different character, like Knocknanuss, he probably would have given her a kick.  He’d have landed her over the other side of the yard.”

Rebel Fitz loves Galway.  Winters isn’t sure why.  It could be the colour and the noise and the occasion, he just seems to come alive there, or it could be the track, right-handed and tight and stiff.  He is probably a little better going right-handed than going left.

“It’s the summer jumping too,” says the trainer.  “Proper summer jumping.  Goodish ground, nice fences, not overly big.  Rebel Fitz is better in the summer, against summer jumpers, than he is in the depths of winter on soft ground when the top National Hunt horses roll out.  Although you’d be meeting a lot of the top National Hunt horses during the summer these days too.”

Look at Rebel Fitz’s Galway record: 12111.  He has run five times at Ballybrit, and he has won four times.  A bumper, two novice chases and the 2012 Galway Hurdle.

That was some day.  Winters wasn’t sure about running Rebel Fitz in the Galway Hurdle that year.  Of course, he had him entered in the race, but sure, didn’t everybody have everything entered in the race?  The Galway Hurdle was an option, but there were other options.  It wasn’t that Rebel Fitz had been targeted at the race for 18 months.

Then, Davy Russell rode the horse to win the Grimes Hurdle at Tipperary 11 days before the Galway Hurdle, beating Captain Cee Bee and The Real Article into second and third places respectively.  Russell got off him in the winner’s enclosure and told Winters that, if he ran him in the Galway Hurdle, he would ride him in it and he would win it on him.

Winters watched the 2012 Galway Hurdle from the steps on the stands.  He watched as Russell sat motionless on the run to the second last, he watched as he took it up at the last, and he watched as Cause Of Causes closed rapidly on the run to the line.

The two horses flashed past the winning post together, and Winters wasn’t sure that they had won until the result was announced.  And when it was, cue spontaneous celebrations.  Winters carried shoulder high on a wave of euphoria, purple trousers and all. Those images are now embedded in Galway folklore.

You can’t repeat spontaneity, but Winters came close with Missunited in 2013.  People spend a lifetime trying to win a Galway Hurdle, then Michael Winters comes along and wins it twice in a row with two different horses.  Noel Meade won the Galway Hurdle twice with Pinch Hitter in 1982 and 1983, but the previous trainer to land back-to-back renewals with two different horses was Paddy Sleator, who won it with Tymon Castle and Knight Errant in 1957 and 1958.

There was more planning with this one.  Winters had had the Galway Hurdle in mind for Missunited for a while.  He thought about running her in the Grimes Hurdle, giving her the Rebel Fitz prep, but Rebel Fitz got a 6lb penalty for winning the Tipperary race, and he only got home by a head at Galway.  Winters ran Missunited on the flat at Roscommon instead, sharpened her up.

In truth, she could have carried 6lb more and still won.  Winters watched from the parade ring this time, cameras trained on him, microphones under his chin.  How’s she travelling?  Are you happy with where she is?  Then Robbie Power took a pull on her at the second last, and Winters knew, it would take a good one to beat her from there.  Cue more celebrations.  Repeat refrain.

“You need to appreciate those days,” says the trainer thoughtfully.  “Because you could take it all for granted if you let yourself.  You see John Drake there, God rest him, he was a great man, a key man on the Clonakilty point-to-point committee, and he was in all the photos at Galway.  Every time we look at the photos, we think of John.”

Michael was at Goodwood on Galway Hurdle day last year.  Missunited was running in the Lillie Langtry Stakes, not in the Galway Hurdle.  Even so, her spirit was at Galway.  The Ballybrit world stopped to watch Missunited’s race.  Last year’s Galway Hurdle winner running in the Lillie Langtry Stakes at Glorious Goodwood.  Johnny Murtagh was doing an interview on television and he stopped in the middle of it, Missunited is running at Goodwood.

She won too, typically.  She battled all the way to the line to beat Arabian Comet and Waila by a half-length and a head, with Oaks winner Talent back in fourth.

“Twas all very humbling,” says Michael.  “It was lovely to win at Goodwood, but the reaction at Galway was unbelievable.  I suppose, she was the only Irish horse there.  If you were running at Galway, you’d have one fellow with one horse and one fellow with another.  But she was the only one in that race at Goodwood.  You’d take every breath.  You’d fill your lungs and hold your breath for as long as you could.  Take it all in.”

The bookmakers’ worst result at Galway last year was Missunited winning at Goodwood.

“You have to appreciate these moments.  Like, when Nina Carberry won on Knocknanuss at Killarney there last week, that was special, Nina is a special rider.  If you could maybe share it around, that would be great, maybe have some good come out of it for others too.”

Knocknanuss probably won’t be going to Galway.  He will probably wait for a winners’ bumper back at Killarney.  Theos Well, who won his maiden hurdle at Cork two weeks ago, also has options at Galway, Winters has an eye on a one-and-a-half-mile handicap on the flat on the last day, but he might wait for Cork the day after Galway finishes.

The horses are well though.  The yard is in good form.

“It’s great when the horses are running well,” says Winters.  “Warm day, horses healthy, everything well, financials in order.  It’s when they’re not running well that you worry.  You’d be looking over your shoulder.  There are always lots of people behind us though.  We have great support.  And you wouldn’t want to let anybody down.”

Rebel Fitz is on track for Galway all right.  He hasn’t run since he won the Grade 2 Istabraq Hurdle at Tipperary last October, but he is getting there now.  He was in the Hurdle and the Plate, but Winters took him out of the Hurdle at the final forfeit stage, so if he runs in one of the marquee races, it will be in the Plate.  He also has the option, mind you, of running on the Sunday instead.

“He’s doing quite well.  If he was pushing you out of the way in the morning, you’d be happier, but he’s getting there.  He’s like all of us as he’s getting a bit older.  If you hurt your hip, it might take you a small bit longer to get over it now than when you were younger.

“We popped him over a couple of fences there the other day, and he went well.  So we’ll decide closer to the time.  If he gives us the right feel, he’ll run in the Plate.  If he needs a little longer though, the race on Sunday is a good option.  He wouldn’t be giving lumps of weight away in that race to lots of horses.”

Wherever Rebel Fitz runs, the support will follow, that’s for sure.  And if he does happen to win, get ready for the shoulder-high celebrations again.

© The Irish Field, 25th July 2015