Racing: Beef Or Salmon the standing dish that nobody likes except his devoted trainer

Michael Hourigan tells Chris McGrath why his Cheltenham Gold Cup favourite lacks a popular following among Irish racegoers

The horse charged with claiming the most prestigious prize in steeplechasing for Ireland betrays his anxiety in unusually expressive fashion. The closer he gets to a big race, the greater the mess Beef Or Salmon makes in his stall.

Michael Hourigan, his trainer, obtains this insight from his daughter, Kay, who knows the horse more intimately than anyone. "He knows," she said as she groomed his flanks in the afternoon sunshine. "It's true. He always knows when something is up. It looks all right in here now, but you should see it in the morning. You'd think 10 bullocks had been in here."

With just a week to go before the Cheltenham Gold Cup, she will soon be dealing with something on the scale of the Augean stables. Beyond the lakes and green hills of Co. Limerick, however, it is the horse himself who is considered to have the truly Herculean task.

As the winner of eight Grade One races, he is much the classiest horse in what is perceived to be a relatively plain field. Yet his is somehow the very first name deleted by many punters and pundits. Strictly in terms of merit, he is entitled to be 2-1. For this assignment, however, bookmakers are struggling to lay 5-1.

The paradox is simply explained. Beef Or Salmon has already made three fruitless attempts at the Gold Cup, prompting a consensus that he is far happier imposing himself on his inferiors in Ireland, on flat tracks in winter ground. He has never jumped fences with any flair and a deficient technique will always be exposed by the hectic demands of the Gold Cup, with a big field hurtling up hill and down dale on faster going.

At their Patrickswell stables, however, the Hourigans sense that hostility to their horse is rather more complex. "There are people in Ireland who would begrudge us the Gold Cup," Kay said. "But I don't worry about them. The ones who matter are like the painter who has a sister in London and goes over specially to back him."

Her father also hints that there is more at stake than mere scruples over Beef Or Salmon's form. "People are entitled to say what they like about the horse," he said. "It doesn't bother me. Possibly they don't want him to win, that's why they put a line through him."

A short, thickset man of 58, with a flat nose splayed between shrewd eyes, Hourigan is the son of a cattle dealer who started out with two horses behind his mother's pub down the road in Rathkeale. "Some of the travelling people came from there," Hourigan said. "I'm not one of them though - I'm once removed!"

He grinned, fully aware that he was encouraging the glib parody that attributes his success as much to craft as graft. Undoubtedly, he has made plenty of money buying and selling horses over the years, but those who would know consider him a straight man in a field of vipers. "I've bought many horses off Hourigan," one veteran bloodstock agent said. "And he has never once screwed me around. You always know exactly where you stand with him. He just has a very good eye for a horse."

Hourigan himself is justly proud of his endeavours. Seated in the family home, he gestures outside, where there are half a dozen cars, 250 acres of land and 90 stables. "There was nothing when we came here, nothing," he said. "We have a few quid now, but for a long time, if a new pair of shoes was needed, you had to think about it."

The acorn that grew this mighty oak lay dormant for a long time. It took Hourigan six years to saddle his first winner, and in the mean time he would scrap and scrape for every penny. "There was nothing I wouldn't do," he said. "I hauled cattle in the lorry, calves, sheep. When you're trying to survive, you'll do anything. I hadn't the best of a lorry, but as the years went by I got a better lorry, and a better lorry.

"And I have a good wife who is not afraid of work. I was the first public trainer in Ireland to put in a swimming pool for the horses, and that was before we had a house built, and she didn't say a word. She still has no problem going down the yard and mucking out 20 or 30 boxes, and then coming back to get the young one - he's 12 - ready for school."

Their oldest, Michael Jnr, a champion amateur rider, is now 32. As an infant, he came into the bar in Rathkeale one evening and delighted Hourigan's father by nearly managing to pronounce "Granddad". The memory prompts the trainer's most abiding regret: that the man who gave him such a delicate eye, and such a tough spirit, would never see what he has accomplished with that legacy. "He was dead in an hour after leaving the bar that night," he said.

"I left home when I was 14 so was away for what should be the best years with a father, even if he might treat you like a bollix. I was back only four years when I lost him. He was beat up by then, he was lame, he'd had a hard life.

"To me, it was the end of the world. I couldn't get him out of my head for years - all that time on the road, when you're there on your own in the lorry. To think I hadn't trained a winner while my father was alive."

It is against that bitterness that Hourigan has measured the travails of his profession, above all the day when Dorans Pride was killed in the hunter chase at the Cheltenham Festival. Winner of the Stayers' Hurdle in his youth, and twice third in the Gold Cup, he had come out of retirement at 13.

"I was there when they gave him the injection and I helped put the sheets over him," he said. "It was very hard. He was part of the family. But my main worry was Kay. Somebody had to stay firm, and I held as best as I could. Life goes on. We had lost an animal. And look what happened: there was this fellow standing in the stable for me."

His mitigation for Beef Or Salmon's previous Cheltenham failures is necessarily extensive, but cogent all the same. As a novice, he fell at the third fence; after that he was inhibited by a muscle problem, but still managed to finish fourth in 2004; and last year, when finally beginning to move with freedom, he fell prey to a virus.

"The jockey could have pulled up after two fences last year. He was going nowhere," Hourigan said. "He's a careful jumper, but adequate, and this season he has been brilliant. Remember, he has beaten the winners of the last four Gold Cups, and none of them ever came up that hill at Cheltenham the way he did in his second year. Kicking King was bouncing up and down on the spot last year, and Best Mate was out on his feet when he won his third one. My horse gallops to the line."

Ultimately, nobody could be surprised if Beef Or Salmon won the race on the bridle, nor if he fails even to get round. He does have a ponderous way of jumping, and soft ground would certainly help.

"The best horse might not win the Gold Cup," Hourigan shrugged. "The luckiest might. But he has proved that he has got the class and the gears, whatever they say about him - and whatever they don't say."

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