While it has long been feared that Cheltenham might one day condemn Noel Meade to some kind of sanatorium, it was not supposed to happen like this. Meade goes into hospital today for a back operation, and even a man whose bittersweet Festival history qualifies him as one of its defining figures will hardly be equal to resuming the Sisyphean cycle seven days later.
But then the sense that things are happening in the wrong order is not wholly unpropitious. Over the years, the multiple champion trainer of Ireland has suffered all manner of cruel and unusual reverses at Cheltenham, mustering just two winners. For one thing, it would be typical for matters to be redressed the one year Meade could not make the pilgrimage. More pertinently, however, another departure from procedure may yet turn the odds in his favour at last.
For while his friend and rival Willie Mullins has always made a priority of the spring festivals, bringing his horses along gradually, Meade has often seemed to set too strong a pace in the first half of the campaign. This time, Mullins has been unstoppable all winter, while Meade is sending some very fresh horses over from Co Meath.
"I suppose it's partly accident, and partly design," he said. "In one respect the fact that Willie has been so strong, running away with the championship from very early on, maybe meant that we've been inclined to be more relaxed about the thing. You can get carried away with the title, and push harder than maybe you should."
At the same time, he emphasises, the likes of Harchibald, Jered and Casey Jones have merely been protected from unsuitably soft ground. And Meade remains sceptical about the theory that he tends to consume too much petrol too soon. "People do say that, I know, but I honestly don't think that's so," he said. "Look at the horses who did win there, or Hill Society, who was only just touched off."
As it happens, the evidence is mixed. Sausalito Bay, who finally exorcised the curse in 2000, had raced only twice that season, but Hill Society won his maiden chase as early as Listowel in September, while Nicanor, a winner in 2006, had run twice in November, once in December and twice in January.
Either way, Meade is certainly showing his capacity for patience with Pandorama, considered too precious a chasing prospect to risk over hurdles next week. In his absence, the stable's best young prospect is Go Native, who has been stoutly backed for the opener.
"I don't know where all that money came from, but he's certainly been doing everything well at home," Meade said. "When Hurricane Fly [who is injured] beat him at Christmas, it was a sprint and that probably suited the winner. Our fellow made a mistake at the last, and would have been a couple of lengths closer otherwise. He's come out of his Naas win in great shape and if you can jump and travel, the way he does, that's a big help at Cheltenham, because you can pick your place."
Most horses tend to race sweetly for Meade's stable jockey, Paul Carberry, and none play to his strengths better than the evergreen Harchibald, outrageously still 25-1 for the Smurfit Champion Hurdle. "We're very, very happy with him," Meade said. "We were going to give him a run at Dundalk but decided he didn't really need one. He's a bit like a spring – every time he runs, on soft ground especially, he comes home sore behind – and I didn't want to risk stretching him after he won at Christmas."
Meade has two further candidates for the race in Jered, sent home for a month after revealing a distaste for heavy ground in November, and Muirhead, who ran such a promising trial in the Irish Champion Hurdle. "If he gets good ground, Jered is a real live contender," Meade said. "And Muirhead can only get better. He's a light horse, but thriving, and the faster they go the better it will suit him."
Over fences, Meade has two ideal staying types for the RSA Chase and National Hunt Chase in Casey Jones and Parsons Pistol. But nobody is more painfully aware of the exorbitant standards demanded by any Festival race. Just think of the horses beaten by his winners: Sausalito Bay was chased up the hill by Best Mate, and Nicanor by Denman. Meade will doubtless miss the convivial evenings next week, but not necessarily the afternoons.
"Funnily enough, Harchie has gone over and won two Christmas Hurdles, two Fighting Fifths, and the Bula – and I wasn't there for any of them," he said. "So I suppose I won't ever be allowed back if we do well. In fairness, it's been nothing but heartbreak for me, that place. It's a killer, it really is." For horses? He gave a rueful grin. "And people."Reuse content