Ruby Walsh, 27 winners and counting. Tony McCoy, 23. Barry Geraghty 19, Robert Thornton 15, Richard Johnson 15. The Cheltenham Festival's leading riders are used to success at their sport's showcase occasion. But even for the been there, done that brigade, the shine of a winner there never tarnishes. Geraghty, with an exceptional portfolio of rides that include Oscar Whisky in the Champion Hurdle and Big Zeb in the Champion Chase, summed it up thus: "Favourite meeting; to win any race there is amazing, such a thrill. And we're wired to the moon with expectations before it starts."
Presumably, then, DougieCostello, 0, is wired to the planet Saturn. This Festival virgin has a mount in the Gold Cup for the first time, the credible outsider Midnight Chase, and more fancied chances in Recession Proof, third favourite for the week's opener, the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, and Wayward Prince, fourth market pick for the RSA Chase the following day.
The term journeyman could have been invented for Costello, who for nearly a decade just got on with his job, day-to-day, undeterred by 105 losers before his first success. An indomitable, "have saddle, will travel" tenet has now brought rewards to the Yorkshire-based, Co Galway-born 27-year-old; this season has been, in terms of winners, prize money and prestige, his best.
But even so, his places of work are not usually the most glamorous; his trail this past week can be traced from Doncaster to Sedgefield,Exeter, Fontwell, Folkestone and Ayr to Market Rasen today. That's the bread and butter of the profession, the plum-packed jam may come this week. "You can ride a winner at those little midweek meetings," he said, "and give it a good ride as well, and no one notices. But it's what we call the Saturday horses that matter to someone like me. That's where you get the exposure, when the trainers and owners take notice."
A succession of those Saturday horses have propelled the likeable Irishman into the top 10 on the jockeys' table. His winners have come for 16 different trainers. Recession Proof will be saddled by his mentor in Britain, Malton-based John Quinn; Wayward Prince, a top-level winner over hurdles, is trained by Ian Williams in Worcestershire; and Midnight Chase is from Neil Mulholland's West Country yard.
Recession Proof goes to Tuesday's fray off a victory in a hurly-burly all-comers handicap, experience which Costello feels will stand the chestnut five-year-old in good stead back against his peers. "He jumps very well," he said, "but he's also got that priceless quality of a high cruising speed, and he's tough." But if it's tough you want, then step forward Midnight Chase. Costello has forged a tremendous partnership with the nine-year-old and makes no secret of his affection for the gelding. The pair have won six from eight ventures together, including their last four, a sequence that culminated in a third in a row at Cheltenham.
After victories by 10 then 17 lengths, Midnight Chase scored by a neck in December, a narrow victory that should never have been. Three fences from home, the dark bay, who had been travelling strongly in the lead, blundered to his knees and all looked lost. But if there is a horse for a course, it is this one. "He seems to adore it at Cheltenham," said Costello, "and that day he was not going to let himself be beat. He picked himself up, and when he's got that climb to the line in his sights, he finds another gear."
Midnight Chase is rated a 16-1 shot for the Gold Cup. "Riding a horse like him in a race like that is what dreams are made of," added Costello. "And if he's close at the bottom of the hill, he won't be far away at the top. He relishes a challenge, he just seems to grit his teeth and go for it. And with an attitude like that, you've won half the battle." Like horse, like jockey, then.
Two a day
Short-shot: Cue Card (Supreme Novices' Hurdle). Returns to novice company after losing unbeaten record against a top-class senior.
Long-shot: Dan Breen (Arkle Trophy). Tired close home on soft ground last time. Will have assistance of blinkers.
Short-shot: So Young (Neptune Management Hurdle). Two from two over hurdles, his powerful stable's pick.
Long-shot: Pistolet Noir (Coral Cup). Suited by the step back up in trip, excellent each-way value so long as the ground does not get too soft.
Short-shot: Junior (Kim Muir Chase). Master of all trades who is relatively unexposed over fences.
Long-shot: Mister Hyde (Pertemps Hurdle Final). Is a lot better than he showed last time.
Short-shot: Back In Focus (Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle). Prefers soft ground; hugely impressive on his hurdling debut last month.
Long-shot: Tidal Bay (Gold Cup): has a slightly recidivist attitude but a deal of class and loves the track.