Galway's Cheltenham Experience — From the agony to the ecstacy

Jockey Paddy Brennan lifts the Cheltenham Gold Cup after winning on Imperial Commander. Pic: Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE

Jockey Paddy Brennan lifts the Cheltenham Gold Cup after winning on Imperial Commander. Pic: Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE

The Owners

The Docado syndicate, including well-known Galway businesspeople Eamon Doyle and Kitty Carr of the Park House Hotel, who own Go Native, are among the luckiest owners in horse racing. Go Native is the first horse bought by the syndicate, and, at only seven years old, has already won some of the most prestigious prizes in NH racing.

The seven-year-old’s victories in the Fighting Fifth and Christmas Hurdles this season had set up him for the final leg of the WBX Hurdling Triple Crown at Cheltenham last Tuesday, where success would have guaranteed a £1m sterling bonus for the winning connections.

Go Native had won the 2m Novice Hurdle on the card on the corresponding day the previous season, and was a very well backed favourite to take the crown and the bonus for his Galway based owners. His work rider had described his last piece of work prior to the race as like driving a Ferrari. Confidence was high for all supporters of the horse.

With the whole city and county watching, and cheering on the local favourite, the race got under way at 3.20. By 3.21, the dream was over, for another year at least. Jockey Paul Carberry was aware that something had happened before the second flight, when the horse had dived slightly, which would make it impossible for him to give his true running. Unaware that something had happened, from the stands, and from in front of their television screens, supporters hoped that Go Native's position at the back of the field was a typical Carberry 'confidence' ride. When the horse made up some ground at the top of the hill, hopes were briefly ignited that a storming finish could herald a result similar to 2009. But Go Native never got into contention, and trailed in behind the winner Binocular.

It was a bitter disappointment for all concerned, but a reminder of the truism that in racing, anything can happen. Connections of the horse took this defeat with good grace, and their primary concern in the immediate aftermath was the well-being of Go Native, and that no serious harm had come to the horse. When I caught up with Kitty this week she confirmed that the horse indeed had suffered some ligament damage, and the results of a further scan are awaited. She was also keen to acknowledge that the horse had given them some wonderful days out, and was certainly young enough to do so again. And so say all of us.

The Trainer

Paul John Gilligan is a young man who trains horses at Cahercrin, Athenry, Co Galway. He describes himself as having had a training licence for eight or nine years, but only training seriously for the last four or five. Last week, Paul's mother, Debrah, waved Paul and his wife Natalie off to the races and wished them the best of luck. Debrah was delighted to stay at home and mind the four boys, Liam, Jack, Danny and Ollie, while Paul and Natalie made the journey to Cheltenham. Appreciating how hard they had worked to get to this day, she felt the couple deserved any success they might achieve, and should be there together to celebrate, if celebration was to be the order of the day. Paul's dad, Eamon, and uncle Gerry were also part of the travelling party.

A couple of years ago, a bunch of lads from Dublin, styling themselves the 'Half A Keg' syndicate, phoned Paul and asked him to buy them a horse. The purchase of Bertie’s Dream was the result of that phone call. Before last Friday, Bertie’s Dream had taken part in fifteen races, and won three of them. Two of the wins were in Sligo and one in Galway. Last November Bertie’s Dream made the trip to Cheltenham where he finished a respectable third to Tell Massini, one of the more fancied horses he faced last Friday on his return trip to the Cotswolds.

Bertie’s Dream was a first Cheltenham festival runner for Paul, and also the first horse in training for the owners. Last week's Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle was a very competitive Grade One race, with representatives from all the leading stables in England and Ireland (including four runners from the stable of Willie Mullins alone ). The race was run over a gruelling three miles, and three horses came to the last flight together. The fall of Restless Harry left the Paul Nicholls-trained Najaf as the only danger to the Galway-trained runner. On the final lung-bursting, uphill stretch to the line, Bertie’s Dream pulled clear to set off some of the most boisterous celebrations of the week.

At home in Galway, Debrah could barely watch, but the cheers from the sitting room told her that Bertie’s Dream was now becoming Paul and Natalie's dream. Liam, the eldest at eight, had been taken out of school early by Debrah, and what a wise decision that was, as all four sons watched the family's first Cheltenham festival winner. Proof, if further proof were needed, that Granny does know best.

Paul has 25 horses in training, and has had a few winners at the Galway festival. His three winners there in 2007 put him on the map as a trainer of considerable promise. He described last week of how 'money couldn't buy the feeling' of having trained a festival winner. Natalie described the moment as very emotional, and how proud she felt for all those who worked at the yard, and whose commitment had made this day possible. Paul expected a good run from his horse, and would have been delighted with a first three finish. He expects the horse to be put away for the season now, and to return next autumn with chasing the plan. A return trip to the festival is very much on the cards. This win has certainly put the young trainer on the map, and if he decides to take the training game really seriously, then a lot of our leading NH trainers will need to look to their laurels.

The Jockey

Paddy Brennan was born in Ardrahan in April 1981. There was no family link to horse riding or racing, but young Paddy helped with the horses of local man, the late Martin Geoghegan, while still in primary school. It was here that his early interest in riding horses developed, and also riding at Patrick King's in Ballyconneely, where the Brennan family had a holiday home. It was while riding with the Galway Blazers on a horse owned by Martin Geoghegan that the natural talent of the young jockey first became apparent. Paddy's father, P.J., was contacted by local resident, Lady Agnew, who told him she would like to speak with him about his son. Unsure what this was about, PJ spoke to Lady Agnew, who told him that she had seen something in the young boy's riding ability which should be nurtured. On her advice, Paddy was sent to Gerry Stack's stables on the Curragh during the school holidays. Only those with a true love of horses survive in this environment, where pay, if there is any, is low and the 'mucking out' is a different world to the Cheltenham winners’ enclosure. Paddy persevered, even if a place among racing's elite jockeys seemed a lifetime away.

Paddy rode his first winner in 1998, and was apprenticed to Jim Bolger for five years, where he rode eight winners. He was then encouraged by A.P. Mc Coy to move to England where he struck up a successful arrangement with Paul Nicholls. He was champion conditional jockey in the 2004-05 season, and before last Friday had ridden four Cheltenham festival winners. He has been attached to the stables of some of the UK's largest training establishments, as after Paul Nicholls came Phillip Hobbs and Howard Johnson. For the past three years, he has been attached to the yard of Nigel Twistion Davies, whom he has described as the best boss in racing.

The Cheltenham Gold Cup is the blue riband of NH racing, and it is every jockey's dream to ride the winner. This is also a golden era of steeplechasing, when Denman and Kauto Star have established themselves as two of the best 3m chasers, if not the two best, since the Arkle days of the mid 60s. Kauto Star has won two of the last three Gold Cups, and Denman the other one. Last Friday was billed as the rematch between the two giants, both hailing from the Ditcheat stable of Paul Nicholls.

Kauto was the odds on favourite, with Denman a clear second best in the betting. Only two other horses were given a serious chance, Cooldine from the Willie Mullins yard, and Imperial Commander, to be ridden by the Galway man, Paddy Brennan.

The story of the race is easily told. Kauto, with Ruby Walsh on board, made a serious blunder at the eighth fence which destroyed any chance he had of victory. He fell at the fourth last. Denman, though, was going very well in the hands of A.P. McCoy and a Nicholls victory still looked the most likely outcome. Through the second circuit he had all his rivals under pressure, with the exception of Imperial Commander. The two were locked in battle as they turned for home, the beast Denman against the young pretender. But it was the younger horse which was going the better, and given a superb ride by Paddy Brennan, prevailed by seven lengths. ' The best day of my life', 'what every jockey dreams of' tripped off Paddy's tongue in the unsaddling enclosure. Quick to praise the horse, and give due credit to his handler, it was a day the Ardrahan man will never forget.

Paddy went on to crown a memorable day, with victory in the last race of the festival on Pigeon Island. He has now taken his place at the top table of NH jockeys, and is still young enough to spend many years there.

When I spoke to Paddy's father, P.J., this week, he explained that as business was busy, and as some of the lads were going to Cheltenham, it was not possible for him to take the time off. He had every confidence that Imperial Commander could win, and was only ever going to bet on one horse in the race. What he describes as 'the younger generation' went over on Friday night for the celebrations, as himself and Maureen stayed at home. No doubt quietly satisfied, and enormously proud, of their son's magnificent achievement.

A week that had begun in disappointment for the Galway contingent had ended in sheer delight and celebration.

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