Racing: Meade's Cardinal rule can end wait

IT IS a peculiarity of the Cheltenham Festival that it likes to leave many of its stellar figures outside on the doormat before admitting them to the hall of excellence.

It took David Nicholson 18 years before he could go in and hang up his sheepskin coat, but the Duke's rolling ball has reached Indiana Jones proportions and he now has 16 winners at the meeting to his name. Josh Gifford too had to wait 18 years until 1988, when he made them pay by banging three out at once. We think of Kim Bailey as being a monolith of the meeting following his Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup double with Alderbrook and Master Oats in 1995, but that followed a blank scrapbook stretching back 17 years.

Performance elsewhere, it seems, is no guarantee to success on the mightiest of stages.

At the head of the lengthy queue which still stretches from the Festival office these days are Paul Nicholls, who sends out winning chasers by the lorry load in this country, and Noel Meade, Ireland's leading practitioner over jumps.

Meade seems to have been trying since the first Noel, yet he is still knocking. It is, in fact, 22 years since the man from Tu Va stables at Castletown, Navan, Co Meath, started sending over his warriors. There have been some near things.

In 1992 Meade had in his keeping a beast called Tiananmen Square, who may not have been the most sensitively named horse in training but was nevertheless an animal of huge ability. His problem was that his nation sent over an even more potent animal for the inaugural bumper that year in the shape of Montelado.

Twelve months ago, Hill Society seemed to have wrestled the Arkle Trophy away from Champleve up Cheltenham's yawning run-in, but, after a draining wait of 15 minutes which must have felt as long as the barren years that had gone before, Meade was again denied.

All this has not made the man bitter. He is a most affable figure in all forms of company, though he does hope his circle is about to extend to those proferring trophies on podiums. "I'd like to knock this Cheltenham thing off, but we can only go and do our best each time," he said yesterday. "We've been a bit unlucky a few times, and if we get in the door once that might be it.

"We haven't really had that many runners, because for a long time we were training Flat horses rather than jumpers, but this is the biggest team by far. There might be seven or eight or maybe more, depending on the ground."

Meade almost enjoyed the greatest day of them all on the Flat at Epsom last June when Sunshine Street, a supposed water carrier in the Derby, ran an astonishing race for a 150-1 shot in the hands of Johnny Murtagh. He led until just over a furlong out and frightened a lot of punters.

Next week though there will be few long shots from Noel Meade, few horses without a considerable chance, especially as his yard has just reawoken from a devilishly rare unsuccessful period. "A lot of my horses seemed to be flat in February," the trainer said. "These things are sent to try us.

"But I've got Ingonish [a bumper consideration unbeaten in two runs] and Hill Society, who worked great this morning. He's come out of his last race well and this is probably his time of the year. It's not a vintage Queen Mother, not a hectic race, and if he has luck on the day he has a chance."

Noel Meade does not believe he needs luck in another race, however. He expects Cardinal Hill to win the Supreme Novices' Hurdle. He expects him to prove he is the finest jumping horse ever to pass through his hands.

"He worked at Leopardstown yesterday and we were thrilled with the horse," he said. "He had gone a bit flat and when we scoped him he was little bit raw down the throat, but nothing serious. We had to slow down with him for a week, but he seems to have come bouncing back. He is my best shot." And one who may belatedly hit the target for a popular man.

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