Racing: Hourigan's Festival appetite heightened by Beef Or Salmon

Like a comet, he has arrived from nowhere to rapture from racing aficionados and headline writers alike. He sounds like an alternative which might be offered by an airline stewardess and, in the case of Beef Or Salmon, we are certainly talking first class.

The Irish chaser has run just three times over fences, on each occasion successfully, but such has been his impact that only Best Mate now lies in front of him in the ante-post lists for the Gold Cup at the Cheltenham Festival.

Beef Or Salmon has won three Grade races, the latest of them the Grade One Ericsson Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas, yet he is still technically a novice. That latest success made the December prize for the Royal & SunAlliance Novice Chaser Award, in conjunction with The Independent, a one-horse race.

Michael Hourigan's runner began his chasing career only on 24 November yet he is already the highest-rated novice in Ireland for over 20 years.

Yet it was on his second outing, at Cork, that the gelding really put pressure on Hourigan. The twitches went through the trainer because Beef Or Salmon's owners had just turned down an offer of £400,000.

"I thought the nerves had left me years ago, but I was wound up the day he ran at Cork because a lot of money had been offered but the owners said he wasn't for sale," Hourigan says. "I was under that bit of pressure on the day.

"I said he should have been sold because of the money on offer. You'd be thinking of your percentage wouldn't you? But they were plucky all right. It was a lot of money to refuse but, in hindsight, maybe they were right."

It would have meant an enormous profit. Few people have bought and sold as many horses as Michael Hourigan in recent years, certainly none at the lower end of the market. Beef Or Salmon himself was taken home to Lisaleen near Patrickswell in Co Limerick from Goffs for an outlay of £5,400.

"I don't like paying too much because if they're no good they're all worth the same thing at the end of the day, 500 euros," Hourigan says. "You must stay as close to that 500 as best you can."

From the moment he was broken in though Beef Or Salmon, despite the implications of his name, was much more than a piece of meat. Perhaps he was taught the knack by another great Hourigan horse, the now retired Dorans Pride, who lives just one box away at the yard.

"Dorans Pride is working the same as a normal horse, twice a week. He's ridden every day," Hourigan says. "He's 14 years of age but he's still in super form. Beef Or Salmon is like him in that they're both very laid-back. There never seems to be a bother with them.

"I am enjoying the new horse. It's great to get a second horse so quickly. There are better trainers than myself who never got a good horse. I've had two top class in my career so far."

It was in the Grade Two Morris Oil Chase at Clonmel, a race Dorans Pride won four times, that the Beef Or Salmon legend began. He beat the subsequent Tommy Whittle Chase winner Sackville that day and, two races later, the scalps are now lying all round his belt. The examination continues in the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup, Ireland's Blue Riband, at Leopardstown next month.

Hourigan, with his undercard boxer's nose, is not someone who ever looks faint-hearted and he is not beginning to sound it either. "Someone told me that old Tom Dreaper [Arkle's trainer] would have done exactly the same as me," he says. "If he'd had a horse like mine he'd have gone for it. Why should I be afraid, Tom used to say, they are the ones who should be afraid.

"I'm looking forward to the Hennessy because he's such a good horse. A great lepper. He took to fences from day one. He's a natural. If he doesn't win in Leopardstown we'll probably find there was something wrong with him."

GOLD CUP (Cheltenham, 13 March) Ladbrokes latest odds: 6-4 Best Mate, 8-1 (from 10-1) Beef Or Salmon, 10-1 Commanche Court, 12-1 Marlborough, 14-1 Hussard Collonges, 16-1 First Gold, 20-1 others.

HONOUR FOR TOP IRISH NOVICE CHASER

Beef Or Salmon is the second winner this season of the Royal & SunAlliance Novice Chaser Award, made in association with The Independent to the leading newcomers to racing over steeplechase fences.

Royal & SunAlliance and Independent News and Media already sponsor the two Grade One novice chases at the Cheltenham Festival and the monthly awards are likely to feature several horses that will line up at Prestbury Park in March.

The judging panel is Lesley Graham of Channel 4 Racing, Graham Dench of the Racing Post and John Cobb, the racing editor of The Independent. A presentation to connections will be made at Leopardstown on Sunday.

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