His trainer remains younger than several jockeys in the race. Barely three years ago, in fact, Neil Mulholland was still riding against them. The horse himself, meanwhile, was beaten out of sight in his first steeplechase last season. Yet not even those saddling three previous winners in the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup on Friday week will be remotely complacent, should Midnight Chase be on the premises as they begin that final, searing climb to the post. As Mulholland says: "If he's still there at the bottom of the hill, he won't be far away at the top."
Anywhere else, even his astounding recent improvement would surely leave Midnight Chase too much to find. As it is, his masochistic relish for this pitiless hill means that nobody can discount him. Placed at 100-1 over hurdles at his first Festival, Midnight Chase has come bounding home first at Cheltenham four times inside the past year, in the process soaring 38lb up the handicap. On the latest occasion, moreover, he had been down on his knees three out.
"He'd cut into himself, pulled a shoe off, and was more or less galloping in bare feet," Mulholland recalled yesterday. "The other horse had got away on a roll, with 17lb less on his back. It was a fair performance, to catch him up that hill. But he had been on the bridle going to the fence, and Dougie [Costello, his jockey] says he always finds an extra gear for that hill. And he showed he doesn't have to be blistering away in front, as people thought. The handicapper thinks we can finish fourth. And if we could do that – well, there's still huge prize-money, and we'd still be in the winner's enclosure after the Gold Cup. For a small yard like ours, in our third season, that would be unbelievable."
It should not need Midnight Chase to testify that the yard in question, which shares facilities with its landlords, the Pipe family, is supervised by a young trainer going places. Back in the autumn, for instance, Mulholland placed one of his lesser horses for three wins and a second inside 11 days. At 30, he could easily be still smashing himself to pieces on the periphery of his first vocation – still resenting all the broken bones that had intruded since he finished runner-up in the conditional jockeys' championship, back in Ireland.
"But that wasn't ever going to happen," he said. "I knew there was no point carrying on riding 15 winners a year. By the time you take away tax, valet fees, diesel and all the rest of it, you're left with nothing – with 15 pats on the back. I'm too competitive to put up with that. Remember, too, I'd had two operations on each leg; both my collarbones had been pinned and plated."
Even in his Co Antrim boyhood, Mulholland would go straight from the school bus to canter a point-to-pointer through the dusk. "I'd drop the horse off with the trainer a week before the race," he said. "He was no good, just a fun horse. But I got him to the track, and I wasn't 15."
By the same token, his apprenticeship under Aidan O'Brien was always as attuned to the example of the boss himself, as to that of Charlie Swan. Sure enough, Mulholland mustered 17 winners when first offered a salaried position in Dorset; 19 in his second season; and has already reached 20 in his first from this new base, in Somerset. "We've a lot of average horses here, a lot of babies too," Mulholland said. "Out of 45, we'd only have about 20 to run. But we're having a lot of fun. John Francome was here the other day and couldn't believe how happy the horses seemed. We don't have expensive horses. But even a bad one – so long as it's fit and healthy and can jump – is going to run well in the worst races. All we can do is hope that people notice those, and help us go up a division or two. And at least we can do battle with the big boys, even if we've only got one horse to take them on."
One horse is all it takes to win a Gold Cup, of course. And Mulholland is infectiously pleased by Midnight Chase's preparations. "He'll never look like a greyhound, because he's so laid-back and eats so well," he said. "But he is as fit and as fresh as he's ever been, and I'm very happy with his frame of mind. He loves the course, and the ground is drying out in his favour. Obviously, we're underdog. I've never once said we're going to win. But none of us – none of us – knows how good he is yet."
Willie Hall (3.50 Newcastle)
Good second on his handicap debut and now returns to the scene of his bumper success.
Beamazed (4.50 Newcastle)
Had things sewn up a long way out last time and can cope with a shorter trip here.
One to watch
E Street Boy (David Pipe) is bred to enjoy longer trips and kept on late when fourth in a handicap hurdle at Taunton last week.
Where the money's going
A Tote Jackpot rollover of £989,008 could double at Exeter today.
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