Beef Or Salmon's tremendous effort to overhaul The Listener at Leopardstown on Saturday put him in a club so exclusive that there is only one other member. Victory in the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup was the Michael Hourigan-trained chestnut's 10th at Grade One level and, over fences, only Moscow Flyer has won as many. Istabraq heads the all-time leaderboard in terms of top-level wins on 14 - all over hurdles of course - with Moscow Flyer on 13, but the great two-mile chaser's first three came over the smaller obstacles.
Hourigan is, rightly, proud of the 11-year-old's record and his part in it. "Forget about what's happened in the Gold Cup for the moment," he said yesterday, "and look at what he's done. He's a very good horse and we've never been afraid to run him, never put him aside for one particular race. We dropped him in at the deep end in his first chasing season because we knew what we had and he's done us proud."
Beef Or Salmon has now run 44 times since he first stepped onto a racecourse in May six years ago, covered 113 miles in anger, won 19 races and earned £956,177. Not bad for a humbly-bred horse who cost around £4,000 as an unbroken four-year-old at auction. "It was like the way it is with some women," recalled Hourigan, "the way he walked made you turn and look at him twice. He was there to be bought, anyone could have had him. Sure, his pedigree wasn't the fashion, but then I didn't have to impress anyone with it. I was buying for myself."
Hourigan's judgement was swiftly vindicated, with owner Joe Craig the fortunate recipient. In his novice chasing season Beef Or Salmon was not once pitted against beginners, a fighting policy in open company rewarded with two Grade One wins at what has proved to be the switch-tailed gelding's happiest hunting ground, Leopardstown. And on their strength he started second favourite for the Gold Cup, only to fall at the third.
But for that, Hourigan feels, his record would have been even better. "It took him a long time to get over it," he said. "He'd hurt a muscle in his back and it wasn't really until last season we got to the root of it. He's had physiotherapy and now he's not hurting any more he's back to how he was at the start, that good a jumper to take the sight out of your eyes."
Nonetheless, shrewdly-placed Beef Or Salmon has notched two at the highest level in each of his five chasing seasons and as far as Hourigan is concerned he should, in due course, make the record over fences his own. "We'll go to Cheltenham," he said, "and if it happens it happens and if it doesn't it doesn't. But I'm sure there's two more Grade Ones in him." The only horse to have won a Grade One chase at more advanced years than Beef Or Salmon's 11 has been Florida Pearl, who was 12 when he took the last of his four Hennessy Cognac Gold Cups. Saturday's win in the Co Dublin track's feature was Beef Of Salmon's third in five years and the ovation he was accorded as he caught the British raider would have done Croke Park credit. "They were so much behind him it brought a tear to my eye," said Hourigan, "They were cheering him from the last fence."
In the Gold Cup, Beef Or Salmon will again wear the blinkers that adorned his head for the first time on Saturday. "He's totally honest and has the heart for the job," added Hourigan, "but like all of us, he needs a bit of motivation as he gets older."
Hourigan's Lisaleen Stables in Co Limerick once housed another horse with high rank on elite lists. Doran's Pride's tally of 20 Graded wins is exceeded only by Moscow Flyer's. "He was a tough horse," said Hourigan, "but this one is as tough, and classier."
Racing Demon was confirmed yesterday as one of Beef Or Salmon's Gold Cup rivals. The seven-year-old, a faller last time out over hurdles, will go for the Cheltenham crown, rather than the shorter Ryanair Chase, for which he was prominent in the betting, and will not take in Saturday's Ascot Chase. "Everything is fine with him," reported trainer Henrietta Knight, "but the ground is terrible at the moment, so we will wait. And we will be going for the Gold Cup."
* Newcastle was abandoned yesterday and today's remaing jumps fixture at Folkestone is subject to a 7.30am inspection. The Folkestone clerk of the course, Neil Mackenzie-Ross, said: "We are raceable at present but in view of the forecast, it is best to have a look first thing in the morning."
All-time Grade One jumps winners
Horse Grade wins Grade 1s
Istabraq 20 14
Moscow Flyer 23 13
Beef Or Salmon 13 10
Brave Inca 10 9
Florida Pearl 12 9
Baracouda 13 7
Flagship Uberalles 10 7
Native Upmanship 3 7
Best Mate 10 6
Desert Orchid 14 6
Dorans Pride 20 6
Hardy Eustace 8 6
Kicking King 8 6
Klairon Davies 9 6
Nap: Red Contact (Southwell 3.20)
NB: Sonevafushi (Folkestone 4.10)