Less than 11 months ago, Noel Chance was in charge of a small string of horses on the Curragh, "farming little races up north" to make ends meet. On 1 May 1995 he moved to Lambourn. Seven months later he saddled his biggest winner in 20 years with a licence when Mr Mulligan won a Grade Two novice chase at Wetherby. He did so again when the same horse ran away with the Reynoldstown Chase at Ascot. Now, Mr Mulligan is the 7-4 favourite for the Sun Alliance Chase at Cheltenham next week and Chance's achievement curve is tending towards the vertical.
Not that you would know it from meeting him. Noel Chance is not one of life's worriers. Sharp, thoughtful and remorselessly good-humoured, the trainer knows that success at Cheltenham would simply be a bonus after an exceptional first season in Britain. "It's such a thrill to have a runner at the Festival," he says, "never mind a favourite. But whatever happens, Michael Worcester [Mr Mulligan's owner] and I are agreed that Ascot was the one that really mattered."
It was at Worcester's invitation that Chance moved to Lambourn after two decades on the Curragh. Worcester, whose ice cream firm did well last summer, owns 12 of Chance's 14 horses and pays the trainer a salary. This frees Chance from much of the number-juggling which preoccupies many trainers, and allows him to spend more time with his horses.
When the offer came, it did not require extended consideration. "I'm impulsive," Chance says. "If you ask me to drive you to the airport I'll want to get on the plane with you. It was an easy decision to make, only then I had to sell it to my wife and kids. But they've settled in well and we're not that far from Ireland."
It was not simply the opportunities on offer in Britain that prompted Chance's relocation, but the lack of them in his native country. "I could see things weren't going to get any better. There's good prize money there, but it's impossible to win any of it, so what's the point for fellers like me? The Aga Khan has 70 or 80 horses in training, Sheikh Mohammed has the same, and while those guys are good for the industry they're no good for the small trainer. You'd go to remote places to try and sneak a race and you'll still find these guys."
Though Worcester owns all but two of his horses, Chance remains a public trainer and would like to fill a few more of his 26 boxes. Victory for Mr Mulligan would, of course, be a priceless advertisement, and while many, quite naturally, have tried to find flaws in the favourite, Chance has gone to a good deal of trouble to keep imponderables to a minimum.
"We have a plan for all our horses," he says. "We started him at Bangor where there were stiff fences but not much serious opposition and he learned a lot, so much so that at Wetherby he jumped from fence to fence. But it's fairly flat there so then we wanted to run him somewhere with a downhill fence. The first at Ascot is downhill and they go to it at a hell of a pace, but he shortened and did it nicely.
"There's those who say Cheltenham won't suit him, but he ran in three point-to-points in Ireland and I would hate to tell you what those tracks would be like. If he can get around there he can get around Cheltenham."
Nor does Chance's plan terminate at this year's Festival. Win or lose, it will be Mr Mulligan's last race of the season, but already his schedule for 1996-97 is in place: the Charlie Hall Chase, Rehearsal Chase, King George, the Hennessy at Leopardstown and then the Gold Cup itself. "Next year is going to be a vintage year for steeplechasers," the trainer says. "One Man and Imperial Call are both younger than Mr Mulligan, and then there's Master Oats and Dublin Flyer, but I think ours might just be good enough and he's more than halfway to the top."
The final few steps towards the pinnacle are always the hardest, but Mr Mulligan's victory at Ascot certainly hinted at still better to come. A mixture of extravagant leaps and a blistering cruising speed had seen off the best field of novice chasers assembled so far this season before the turn for home. His association with Richard Johnson, a conditional rider with an equally large future, has also been a feature of his success, and Chance had no trouble resisting an approach from Richard Dunwoody's agent about the ride.
"I'm a man of my word," he says. "There's no reason to replace Richard. He rode our first winner and he's never once been beaten on one of mine when he shouldn't have been."
For both trainer and jockey, Wednesday's race will be the most important of their careers. Success would be a fitting reward for a man called Chance who took a gamble.Reuse content