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David Marnane 

This time last year, David Marnane and Settle For Bay were all set for Royal Ascot.  The trainer was happy with his horse, he had progressed nicely through the winter, and he had run well at Leopardstown on his final run before Ascot. 

Then he went to Ascot and, under a no-nonsense ride from Billy Lee, won the Royal Hunt Cup.

“Last year was fantastic,” recalls the trainer.  “To win a Royal Hunt Cup, as easily as he did.  For the team here, and for his owners, Dennis McGetigan and Maurice Casey.  We all got some thrill out of it.  It was an emotional time too.  Dennis’ wife Nicola had only days previously got the all clear after a serious health scare.”

The road to Ascot last year had been long and winding.  In common with the majority of horses at Marnane’s yard in Bansha in County Tipperary, Settle For Bay was not an expensive horse.  Bought for €35,000 at the Baden-Baden yearling sales in Germany by Marnane with bloodstock agents Peter and Ross Doyle, the Rio De La Plata gelding justified his trainer’s faith in him when he won at Leopardstown on his first run as a three-year-old. 

Actually, Marnane was thinking Royal Ascot back then, he was thinking that Settle For Bay could be a horse for the Britannia Handicap then, in 2017, as a three-year-old.  But disaster struck at Dundalk on his next run when he broke his pelvis.

“It didn’t look good for him that day.  But thankfully he recovered very well, and we were able to run him again the following September.  Then he won those four races in a row at Dundalk during the winter, and we started to think about the Royal Hunt Cup.”

The road since last year’s Hunt Cup has had a few twists in it too.  Settle For Bay’s work after Ascot last year was fine, but not sparkling.  He went to Dubai and ran twice.  He ran okay on both occasions, but not brilliantly.  They had him scoped, found that he had a wind issue.  They got that sorted and took him home. 

“The vets did a brilliant job with him in Dubai.  I was thinking then that if I could get him back close to his best, that we could have another go at the Hunt Cup this year.  I know that history is against us, that no horse has won two Hunt Cups since the 1940s.  But he has a chance, and we like to aim our horses at races in which we think that they have a chance.”

It is a policy that has served David Marnane well through the years.  Always ambitious, he has been punching above his weight in big handicaps for years with inexpensively-bought horses.  He won the Victoria Cup at Ascot in May 2010 with Dandy Boy, who was sent off as favourite for the Wokingham Handicap at Royal Ascot the following month.  He didn’t win the Royal Ascot race that year, but Marnane took him back there in 2012 and won it then, an unconsidered 33/1 shot. 

Santo Padre won the Portland Handicap at Doncaster in 2009.  Jamesie won the ‘race’ on the near side in the Buckingham Palace Handicap at Royal Ascot in 2012, but ended up second overall behind Eton Forever, who raced on the far side.  Nocturnal Affair won the Al Naboodah Construction Group Handicap in Dubai in 2012.

“We are a small team here,” says the trainer.  “We have a relatively small team of horses, and we are proud of what they achieve.”

Settle For Bay has been coming along nicely this spring.  Last of eight in a listed race at Naas on his seasonal return, he stepped forward from that 10 days ago at Leopardstown, when he stayed on well to finish fourth behind Flight Risk in the Listed Glencairn Stakes.

“I was very happy with how he ran at Leopardstown.  He got much closer to Michael Halford’s mare Surrounding than he had at Naas, and I think that is a measure of how he had progressed.”

Leaving Leopardstown that evening, the trainer was thinking that it might be a bit of a rush to get his horse to concert pitch in time for Royal Ascot.  That ideally there would be four weeks between the Leopardstown race and the Royal Ascot race, not two.  He got his horse home though, and Settle For Bay thrived.

“I have been delighted with him since then.  He has really come forward again.  The week after a run, horses can either go forward or shrivel up, and this fellow has come forward for sure.  I think that two weeks was more than enough time.”

Settle For Bay raced off a handicap rating of 99 when he won the Royal Hunt Cup last year.  This year, he will race off a mark of 105.  So 6lb higher.  It’s not insurmountable.  Such was the comfort with which he won last year’s race, it is difficult to argue that he wouldn’t have won it with another 6lb on his back.

“I think that he got a lot of confidence from that last run at Leopardstown,” says his trainer.  “You can see it in his work.  Good horses are like good footballers, they have this strut, you can see it in them.  They have this confidence.  And it seems like he has his confidence back now.  It’s great to see it in him.  It’s great to have the old Settle For Bay back.”

It’s just a case now of putting the finishing touches to his preparation.

“He did his final piece of work on Friday morning, and he went well.  We’re very happy with him.  He’ll leave here now on Sunday night, same as last year.  Arrive Monday morning, settle in.  Get ready for Wednesday.  Same as last year.” 

The parallels with last year may not end there.

© The Sunday Times, 16th June 2019