Donn's Articles » Padraig Roche

Padraig Roche

Like-A-Butterfly was 20 years ago, JP McManus’ mare and Charlie Swan battling up the Cheltenham hill, holding off the challenge of Westender and AP McCoy and getting home by a neck to land the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.  The crowds.  The cheers.  The Irish banker.

Christy Roche trained Like-A-Butterfly, and the trainer’s son Padraig used to ride her out in the mornings before he went to school.  When she went to Cheltenham, Padraig went with her.  Led her up, around the parade ring in front of the packed crowd, led her and Charlie Swan out onto the racecourse and let her go.  Bring her back safely Charlie.  

If you let the YouTube footage roll after the end of the 2002 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, you will see a 16-year-old in a yellow shirt meeting Like-A-Butterfly as she makes her way back down the track after winning the first race of the 2002 Cheltenham Festival, patting the mare on the neck, all smiles, clasping Charlie Swan’s hand.  That’s Padraig Roche.

“I didn’t think that it could ever get any better than Like-A-Butterfly,” he says.

On Tuesday it did.  

Besides the Roche name and the JP McManus silks, there are not many similarities between Brazil in 2022 and Like-A-Butterfly in 2002.  The former a young colt, still an entire, the latter an older mare.  Like-A-Butterfly was eight when she won the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, still the oldest horse to win the race since 1990.  Brazil was four on Tuesday when he won the Boodles Freed Winter Hurdle.  What they had in common was class and pace and aptitude, a dogged determination and a will to win.

Padraig Roche, trainer, had never had a runner at the Cheltenham Festival before Tuesday.  Actually, Brazil was his first runner in Britain.  He could be the first of many.  

In one sense, it was all brand new to him as a trainer.  In another though, he had been there many times before.

He watched the race on the ground, where the chute from the parade ring meets the racecourse.  He watched on the big screen in front of him as Brazil got away well under Mark Walsh and jumped the first flight in the leading group.

“That was always the plan,” he says.  “Have him handy from the start.  We knew that he would stay well.  Keep it simple.”

But these things are rarely that simple.  At the second flight, the one that they jump in front of the stands before they wheel away on another circuit of the track, Gaelic Warrior jumped to his right along the inside, and the concertina effect saw Brazil squeezed out of it and knocked back from the leading line into seventh or eighth place and playing catch-up. 

“If you are going to win any race at Cheltenham,” says the trainer thoughtfully, “you need everything to go right.  And when that happened, I thought that that was it, our chance gone.  They weren’t going that fast, and Mark was able to recover the ground, but it’s still on your mind as you are watching the race, that that incident could cost us in the end.”

It didn’t.  Mark Walsh had Brazil back into his racing rhythm, up on the outside of the well-backed favourite Gaelic Warrior.  His jumping was a little novicey on occasion, not helped by the leader jumping to his right, but he still did everything easily.  He moved up on the outside of the leader as they raced down the hill and over the third last and second last flights, but he came under pressure as they raced around the home turn as the favourite kicked for home.

“I still thought that we had a chance.  I knew that he would stay on well.” 

Brazil had closed again to within a length of the leader by the time they got to the final flight, and then it was a duel up the hill.  Brazil was dogged, responded to his rider’s urgings, joined the leader about 75 yards from the winning post and forged on to win by a short head.

“It was an unbelievable feeling,” says Padraig Roche.  “It’s still sinking in to be honest.  A winner at Cheltenham.  I’ve been going to Cheltenham since I was a child, you’d dream that you could have a winner at Cheltenham, so for it to happen, it’s unreal.  We’re so lucky to have a horse like him.”

It was Christy Roche who saw Brazil racing at Dundalk last October and thought that he would make a nice jumper.  A full-brother to Irish Derby and St Leger winner Capri then trained by Aidan O’Brien, he obviously has the pedigree.

“I’m so thankful to the owners, to JP and Noreen (McManus) for putting their trust in me.”

They have been putting their trust in Padraig Roche for a while, since he took over the trainer’s licence from his dad in 2018.  And the transition was seamless.  When Out Of The Loop won a handicap hurdle at Fairyhouse in December 2017, he was Christy Roche’s final winner as a trainer.  When Out Of The Loop went back to Fairyhouse in February 2018 and won a better handicap hurdle, he was Padraig Roche’s first.

Young Padraig spent as much time going racing and with horses as he did at school.  He was only six when his dad won the Irish Derby on St Jovite, but he remembers St Jovite all right.  And going into Jim Bolger’s when his dad went in to ride work.  And the early mornings at Ballydoyle, and all the top class horses, Desert King and Harbour Master and King Of Kings.

He rode for his dad as an amateur, but all the while, he kept an eye on the training side with the longer term in mind.  He spent time with Aidan O’Brien and Conor O’Dwyer and Kevin Prendergast, and he spent a year in Australia, widening his horizons, broadening his ideas.

“Tuesday was the best,” he says.  “I’ve been lucky enough to have some nice winners so far as a trainer, but Tuesday was as good as it gets.  A Cheltenham winner.”

It could be the first of many.

© The Sunday Times, 20th March 2022