Donn's Articles » Zabana


Andy Lynch and Chris Jones split up to watch their races.  Call it superstition, call it habit, trainer and owner go their separate ways before one of their horses runs, they watch from different vantage points.

And so it was at Cheltenham last month, before the JLT Chase, the first race on the third day of the Festival.  They saw Zabana and Davy Russell off to the start, and they went their separate ways.

Chris made his way up to the stands with his wife and his three sisters.

“Well, we got him here anyway,” he said to his wife as the starter called the horses in and he raised his binoculars to his eyes.

Andy made his way out onto the course, down towards the final fence.  He had watched the Coral Cup the previous year from the final flight of hurdles, and Zabana had run a cracker to finish second, beaten just a neck by Aux Ptit Soins.  It could be for luck.

Andy didn’t see the start, but he heard it.

“Something has unshipped the rider at the start,” the commentator said.  “Three Musketeers I think it was.  In fact it wasn’t, it was Zabana who went.”

The trainer’s heart did a backwards flip and landed on its back.

“It was Zabana who went at the start.  So Zabana was the one that was unshipped.”

Andy didn’t hear much more.  He watched his horse run riderless after the other horses, he watched him race among them and jump the fences.  He hoped that Zabana would stop when he came up past the stands first time, but he didn’t, he raced out on the second circuit with the rest of the field.  He actually led them down the back straight, ears pricked.  He ran the entire race without running a race and crossed the line in front.

“He thought he won,” says Andy.

The trainer says that it was the worst day of his racing life.  Everything was right, the ground was perfect, the track, the horse was bouncing, he couldn’t have been in better form.  Then it all came tumbling down.

It was just one of those things, neither trainer nor owner is eager to apportion blame.  It was a standing start, and nobody likes those standing starts.  The horse was side on to the tape when the starter let them go, he jinked when the tape flew and he got a belt from another horse, which dislodged the rider.

“We have lost horses down through the years,” says Chris.  “And it’s obviously terrible when that happens.  But this is up there with that.  Look, I know, it’s racing, things happen, you have horses fall and you have bad luck, but it is reasonable to expect that you get a shot at it.  We didn’t even get a shot at it.”

Zabana looks good now though, coat shimmering in the County Meath morning sun.  Bought him at Goffs in 2012.  Actually, Chris and Kevin Ross went to buy a different horse, but that horse went for too much money, so they came home with this Halling gelding that they also liked instead.  It can be strange the way things work out.

Zabana was feeling a little sorry for himself after he came home from Cheltenham, it took him a while to recover.  He held an entry in the Ryanair Gold Cup at Fairyhouse on Easter Sunday, but there was never really a question of him taking up that engagement.  He needed more time.   Now he has had that time, and he is bouncing again, on track for Punchestown this week.

“We have him in the novices’ handicap chase on Friday as well,” says Andy, “but he will probably run in the Grade 1 Growise Chase on Tuesday.  We think he will stay three miles all right, and we think that he is up to that class.”

Chris Jones knows a top class horse when he has one.  The walls of the house are adorned with photographs of horses who have carried the maroon and white striped silks to big-race victory: Tiger Cry in the 2008 Grand Annual Chase, What A Charm in the 2011 Fred Winter Hurdle, Mala Beach in the 2014 Galmoy Hurdle.

And Klairon Davis.  Take your pick of big-race wins.

A Dennys Gold Medal Chase, an Arkle Trophy, two BMW Handicap Chases and, of course, that famous Queen Mother Champion Chase in 1996.  The picture of him jumping the last upsides Sound Man and Viking Flagship evokes memories.  And Klairon Davis is here, he is in the field beside the gate at the entrance, 27 years old and still enjoying life.

Chris and Andy hunted together with the Ward Union.  That was the kernel from which this operation has grown.  Andy was whipper-in with the Ward Union for 40 years, and he bought Chris his first hunter.

Andy was training point-to-pointers at the time, but Chris was looking to set up this place, so and he asked Andy if he would come and train the horses.

It started slowly in 2008, but it has stepped up every year since they began.  This season so far has been good.  Jarob won two handicap hurdles at the beginning of the season, Futuramic finished third in both the Leinster National and the Munster National, Ben Dundee ran a highly encouraging race behind Ivanovich Gorbatov at Leopardstown over Christmas, and they have a couple of young horses for whom they have high hopes.

It is a relatively small operation here, but it is impressive and it is progressive.  And they and Zabana deserve a bit of luck now after the incident at the start of the JLT Chase.  Normal luck would do, and they could get it at Punchestown on Tuesday.  It can be strange the way things work out.

 © The Sunday Times, 24th April 2016