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Henry de Bromhead

Jack de Bromhead’s favourite horse is Special Tiara.  He has to think for a moment, it’s a close call between a few of them, but Special Tiara shades it. 

Jack wasn’t at Cheltenham when his favourite horse won the Queen Mother Champion Chase last year, and he won’t be going this year when the reigning champ goes back to defend his crown next week.  Jack gets it.  He understands it when his mother tells him that he and his two sisters are too young for the Cheltenham clamour.  Special Tiara is two years his senior after all.  It hardly seems fair, though, that Harvey gets to go every year. 

Harvey moves and jumps and looks like a hairy goat, primarily because Harvey is a hairy goat.  A travelling companion for Sizing John two years ago, he filled that role for Monalee last year.  Monalee seems to settle well when he travels with his goat, so it is well worth including Harvey on the ticket, even if there is more paperwork required for the goat than there is for any horse.

Even Harvey looks good at Knockeen this morning though.  Most things look good at Knockeen this morning, with a pristine white snow-blanket as a foil, lit up by the morning winter sun.  Monalee looks good, athletic and relaxed and ears forward.  Special Tiara looks good, healthy and well and coat gleaming.  Petit Mouchoir looks very good, the grey horse just about distinguishable against the snow-white background.

“They’re all in good form,” says Henry tentatively, the pessimist in him trying to get out.  “It’s just a case of putting the final touches on them now before Cheltenham.”

When a relationship is long-term, like the one between Henry de Bromhead and the Cheltenham Festival, you are going to have highs and you are going to have lows.  It’s an inevitability.  

Fissure Seal was a high.  It was in 1993 that the Tug Of War gelding, trained by Henry’s father Harry, won the Pertemps Final.  Henry was working at Derrinstown Stud at the time, he had to take time off work to go to Cheltenham.  He wouldn’t have missed it, brilliant for his dad, but he was just along as a supporter on the day.

“I couldn’t claim any credit for Fissure Seal!  That was all down to Dad and his team.”

There was the disappointment of the 2008 Champion Hurdle, when Sizing Europe travelled like the most likely winner down the hill before a back injury meant that he could hardly make it back up it to the winning line.  And there was the frustration of the 2012 Champion Chase, when the by-passed final fence could have made the difference between victory and defeat for Sizing Europe.

But there have been highs too.  There was the inauguration in 2010, when Sizing Europe won the Arkle.  Exoneration for the horse, vindication for the trainer, relief all round and laced with an inevitable sense of achievement: the arrival of a new Cheltenham Festival winner.

There was the elation in 2011, when Sizing Europe won the Champion Chase and Sizing Australia won the Cross-Country Chase.  And there was the thrill of 2017, 12 months ago, when Special Tiara won the Champion Chase.

“We were a bit under the radar last year,” says Henry thoughtfully.  “Everyone was expecting Douvan to win it obviously.  But it goes to show you, you shouldn’t run scared of one horse, and our horse was great on the day.  He’s a bit under the radar again this year, but he goes back there as the Champion Chaser.  He is 11 years old, but he ran a big race at Leopardstown last time on ground that was too soft for him, and he could surprise a few people again.”

Monalee is doing some flat work under Rosemary Connors, one a prolific winner over hurdles and fences, the other a prolific winner at the Dublin Horse Show.  Second in the Albert Bartlett Hurdle at last year’s Cheltenham Festival, Monalee was very good at Punchestown in November on his debut over fences, but he suffered a serious setback when he fell in the Grade 1 Neville Hotels Chase at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival. 

“He gave himself a nasty fall,” says Henry, “and then another horse ran into him.  It didn’t look good for a while, but he recovered well and we were delighted when he went and won the Flogas Chase at the Dublin Racing Festival.  He has been very good since.  He has the option of going to the JLT over two and a half miles, but the RSA Chase over three is still his most likely Cheltenham target.”

Petit Mouchoir also holds an entry in the JLT Chase, but it looks like the Arkle Trophy is the race for him.

“We were very happy with him at Leopardstown.  He was beaten five lengths by Footpad, but it was his first run since October, so you have to hope that he can improve.  And he made a bad mistake at the second fence.  His jumping after that was good, and he was good on his debut at Punchestown, so hopefully he will jump well.  He is a classy horse, he was third in the Champion Hurdle last year, but the Arkle is looking like a very hot race this year.”

Monalee and Petit Mouchoir and Special Tiara are the headline horses, but there is strength in-depth to de Bromhead’s Cheltenham team.  Balko Des Flos won the Galway Plate in August and he ran a cracker to finish second to Road To Respect in the Leopardstown Christmas Chase last time.  Paloma Blue finished second to Fayonagh in the Champion Bumper at Punchestown last April, and is now starting to fulfill his potential over hurdles.  Chris’s Dream was a revelation on his debut for de Bromhead at Clonmel last week.  Three Stars and Ordinary World and Some Plan and Mind’s Eye are all potential travellers.  And others.  It’s a strong team.  As strong a Cheltenham team as the trainer has ever assembled.

“It looks like we will have a good few runners all right,” says the trainer.  “Hopefully everything goes okay between now and then, because it’s at this stage that, if something goes wrong, you don’t have a lot of time to put it right.” 

The pessimist in him takes over again.

“If we could have one winner, that would be great.”

© The Sunday Times, 4th March 2018