It was a bad start yesterday at Killeens, the Co Tipperary yard of Edward O'Grady. "There's six and a half degrees of frost, you lot are here and the Champion Hurdle horse is lame," Ireland's leading active trainer at the Cheltenham Festival told his assembly. Good morning, Edward.
The weather and O'Grady's disposition were to become warmer, the press pack would disperse, but there remains the problem of the yard's Champion Hurdle aspirant Back In Front, who is damaged in front.
The winner of last season's Supreme Novices' Hurdle faces a race before a race, the one against time. "He worked very well in a racecourse gallop on Wednesday, he was sound on Thursday, but he pulled out lame on Friday," O'Grady said. "Always when a horse is lame, even if it's in his ear, the first place you look is his foot. We took the shoe off him and poulticed his foot, but it doesn't seem to have made a whit of difference. We've had the vet, the chiropractor and the farrier and we still don't know why he's lame. There's nothing to see.
"I'm hugely upset because I haven't won a Champion and he is a genuine contender for a very open crown. Realistically, I'm looking at a hill. And every morning it's getting steeper."
O'Grady's anguish is heightened by the fact that he believes the Champion favourite, Rooster Booster, may be vulnerable after a sapping effort in the Tote Gold Trophy. "He's definitely the best in the race, but I don't know if we didn't see too much in the trailer at Newbury," he said. "That was a Champion Hurdle-winning run, but the real Champion is on 16 March."
Hurdling's blue riband is a race which has not found its way back to Ballynonty, near Thurles. There have, though, been 17 victories for O'Grady at the great games, which places him behind only Martin Pipe and Nicky Henderson of current trainers.
Mr Midland, ridden by Mouse Morris in the 1974 National Hunt Chase, was the first, Golden Cygnet, four years later, the best. His 15-length victory in the Supreme Novices' of 1978 is still reckoned to be one of the foremost achievements of modern racing, a Bob Beamon moment. It was achieved in a time two seconds faster than a Champion Hurdle featuring Monksfield, Sea Pigeon and Night Nurse.
Thirty-one days later, Golden Cygnet took on Sea Pigeon and Night Nurse in the Scottish Champion and was in the process of humbling them when he broke his neck at the last. It is a long time ago, but O'Grady has not forgotten the James Dean of racing, the thrilling horse which died young at high speed.
The photographs are spread across the kitchen table when we get in out of the blast. "That famous day in Ayr he was on the bridle going to beat Night Nurse and Sea Pigeon," the trainer says. "I don't think anyone has seen a better horse since."
The scroll has come forward now to Pizarro, who, in Back In Front's possible absence, is the yard's leading player. This is the horse which won the bumper two years ago ridden by O'Grady's neighbour, Jamie Spencer. Indeed, the trainer is in a cocoon of racing territory. Coolmore Stud lies five miles away, while next door is the breeder of Hardy Eustace, who denied Pizarro by a length in the Royal & SunAlliance Hurdle last March.
"Pizarro is the hope now,'' O'Grady said. "He's in what is the prep (the Royal & SunAlliance Chase) for the premier race (the Gold Cup). He's in good shape and likes the track.''
O'Grady continues to enjoy Cheltenham the contest ("it means everything''), even if he has growing doubts about Cheltenham, the growing event. "It's become a corporate jamboree,'' he says. "There was a time when you could leave your drink on the bar, walk out on to the lawn, watch the race and come back and finish your drink. You'd want a whip and a chair to get into the bar there now.''
O'Grady talks a lot of the onus put on him, a feeling which has been part of his life since he abandoned veterinary studies, aged 22, on the death of his trainer father. The son returned to the house where he was born. "They used to keep me in a drawer here,'' he says.
"The Irish think we have a responsibility when we go to the Festival. We're representing the country as well as ourselves. They'd be very disappointed if we weren't very competitive at least. There's pressure if you're successful and you can be exposed if you fail. It drains you. I wouldn't be using a lot of Sennacot when I go there.''
Nap: Broughton Knows
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