Native goes for £1m bonus and a Festival prize beyond price

Champion victory would lay to rest Noel Meade's Cheltenham tribulations. Chris McGrath reports
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The Independent Online

No, really, who wants to be a millionaire? It almost seems as though they can't give the stuff away. Yes, Daragh Bourke recently acquired a Volkswagen Golf, and he'd be glad enough to have that paid off. But who, in the words of the song, wants a fancy foreign car?

A morning with Bourke's employer, Noel Meade, establishes beyond all doubt that romance, not avarice, animates the carnival of chance at Cheltenham next month. The sky lay heavily on the intimate Co Meath landscape, and the ravens made their own sardonic observations as Meade, seven times champion jumps trainer, watched Go Native breezing under Bourke. "He's moving really well," the young man enthused afterwards. "The last furlong, it was like he spread wings."

Go Native is one of the favourites for the Smurfit Champion Hurdle, a prize that would redress the many cruel and unusual experiences Meade has endured at Cheltenham over the years. Potentially, the race might also have changed the life of Bourke, a 20-year-old from Co Tipperary. For Go Native has already won the first two legs of the WBX Triple Crown, comprising the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle and the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. WBX, an online betting exchange, will pay a £1m bonus to any horse that completes the treble.

The bulk of that prize, naturally, would go to Go Native's owners, but £50,000 would be divided among Meade's staff, and fully £100,000 would go to the horse's own groom. Until Christmas, the man eligible for that windfall was Bourke. But then he had a decision to make.

"When I left school at 16, to come here, my dream was to ride winners for Noel Meade," he said. "My dream wasn't to have a lot of money. I've always looked up to the boss, so it was a dream to work for him, never mind to ride in races for him." Then, on St Stephen's Day, he had the chance to ride the favourite in a bumper at Limerick. The only problem was that Go Native was running at Kempton the same afternoon.

The retirement of Harchibald, the horse who had himself once come so close to winning a Champion Hurdle, left Alan McIlroy available to go to Kempton. But if McIlroy, with a wife and son, was to be stuck in Kempton for Christmas, he would have to take over Go Native for good.

Bourke did not hesitate. He rode Original Option at Limerick, and won. An hour or so earlier, Go Native had already won a photo finish at Kempton.

"And I hope he goes on and wins at Cheltenham," he insisted. "I hope Alan gets the hundred grand, and if he does I'll be as happy for him as I know he would have been for me. Hopefully, in a few years I'll be riding loads of winners, and he'll be in his big house with stables, training horses for me to ride! It's the same through the yard. There's no bickering over who'll get what. Alan and I have been friends from day one, and it'll always stay that way."

Bourke still rides Go Native in his work and there is no mistaking his ardour for the shared cause. "I'd pay off Daragh's car for him," McIlroy said. "That's the very least I could do. It's unbelievable, to be going there with a fighting chance. I've a mortgage and a young family, and it would make a big difference to us."

Meade would himself get a handsome payday, and even champion trainers could find a use for £150,000. Knowing his convivial habits, however, it is hard to know how much might be left after the inevitable party. Almost as precious, you fancy, would be the sense his travails at the Festival could be forgotten for good.

When you go into his house, the first thing you see is a photo of Meade kneeling to kiss the turf in the winner's enclosure after Sausalito Bay had finally exorcised his Festival curse in 2000. "I'd been getting so much stick," he said ruefully. "Every time I picked up the paper it was the same: this is the year, then this is the year, then this is the one. To be honest with you, Cheltenham isn't really a fun place for us. There's too much riding on it, everyone's uptight. Even if you have a winner, it's more a relief than anything."

Sausalito Bay beat no less a horse than Best Mate; Nicanor had to see off Denman in 2006; and then, last year, a third novice hurdle came his way through Go Native. "I know he only beat Medermit a neck, but he was after doing a lot of work to go clear and tied up," he said. "Medermit wasn't beaten far at the line, but he wasn't there when the race was won. It's a case of when you put the race to bed. He got to the front too soon at Kempton, too. This horse would have more speed than Harchibald, and they'll go a real good gallop, which you'd think will suit us."

He is doing his best to keep a lid on expectations. Having seen Harchibald beaten after cantering upsides in 2005, he will be counting no chickens with four weeks still to go. Paul Carberry, his stable jockey, suffered his traditional pre-Festival injury scare down the road at Navan on Sunday, and was yesterday having treatment on a sore and swollen ankle. But the buzz in the yard is infectious. It would be some party, wouldn't it? Meade grins. "It would," he said. "But look, we have to win the bloody thing first."

Turf account: Chris McGrath


Buzz Bird (4.30 Southwell)

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(4.40 Newcastle)

Discouraging form figures, but hinted at better on his debut for his progressive new stable, fading only late on after a long absence. Took a nasty fall since but clearly none the worse and worth another chance at the odds.

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