HomeHorse RacingGavin Cromwell showcases his remarkable talent at Cheltenham

Gavin Cromwell showcases his remarkable talent at Cheltenham


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Equine and human sporting brilliance, champions exhibiting what makes them special on the most searching stage. If you love the sport, your spine had cause to tingle.

It was a memorable week for the Willie Mullins team. But Gavin Cromwell reminded us yet again what a fabulous trainer he is. If you were to believe the critics, there should be no chance for a blacksmith with four or five horses to become a force in such an unforgiving environment as the Irish National Hunt scene.

But he brought his Cheltenham tally to six by saddling two full siblings (horses with the same sires and dams) to success, something that has never happened at the Festival. Full brothers and sisters had won before, but not at the same meeting, while last year, the victorious Delta Work and Jazzy Matty were half-brothers (with different sires). That Inothewayurthinkin and Limerick Lace are homebreds will have given JP and Noreen McManus particular pleasure.

Cromwell is a Champion Hurdle and dual Stayers’ Hurdle-winning conditioner at Cheltenham. He has saddled a Welsh National victor over 3m 6f and claimed a Queen Mary — the first of two Royal Ascot triumphs — over five furlongs. A year has scarcely passed in the past five or six that he hasn’t been building new stables. The man who shod 2015 Gold Cup winner Don Cossack for his good friend Gordon Elliott certainly is mixing it with the best of them now.

​The Brits are sick of the sight of Cromwell as much as Mullins, as the Meath man brought his total number of cross-channel winners over jumps this term to 11 from 44 — a stunning 25 per cent strike rate.

It was brilliant to see Keith Donoghue propel Limerick Lace to victory in the Mares’ Chase. A fantastic horseman, Donoghue has had a love-hate relationship with Cheltenham. Reared in the game but tall, he endured weight struggles that forced him to watch a 17-year-old Jack Kennedy win the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle on Labaik seven years ago.

That was his ride and he had done much of the work on this quirkiest of animals. Donoghue struggled mentally with that and gave up riding for a short period, but Gordon Elliott gently coaxed him back into the fold and four Cross-Country Chase successes followed. Three came courtesy of Tiger Roll, another horse whose appetite for the game he had helped stoke, once more away from the limelight.

It cannot have been easy to leave Elliott, but his talent deserved more opportunities. Cromwell has given him those and so important is he to the operation now that he has a direct involvement in the race planning of the yard’s inmates.

Derek O’Connor was the man on board Inothewayurthinkin. It was a trademark O’Connor ride, patient, apparently without any stress, out the back on a top weight in the Kim Muir Handicap Chase. Some poor jumps had left him trailing the field with a circuit to go, but O’Connor has never been one for going off fast. He learned in his youth from the great John Kiely to let horses take their time.

That was fitting as, if there is no greater gentleman among the training ranks than Kiely, you would be hard pushed to find a more popular pilot than O’Connor.

Now 41, the Tubber native managed two winners, having also scored on the Emmet Mullins-trained Corbetts Cross in the National Hunt Chase, bringing his career total to six. The AP McCoy of point-to-points in terms of records set that are unlikely to be broken, he was just denied further history when another Mullins charge, Its On The Line, was nabbed just shy of the post in the Foxhunter.

That would have made O’Connor the only jockey to win all three amateur races at the one Festival. As it is, he is one of only two to have them on their CV at all, along with the late John Oaksey. Its On The Line is not the most straightforward conveyance though and there is an argument that O’Connor’s best ride of the week actually came in defeat. The man is a genius.

Derek’s late mother Jean (née Moore) is a critically important figure in the annals of Irish racing. Along with Helen McDonagh (née Bryce-Smith), late wife of dual Champion Hurdle-winning trainer Dessie and mother of former champion Flat jockey Declan, she was in the vanguard when taking on the Turf Club to allow women to ride under Rules. Like her son, she was a legend of the pointing scene, enjoying a particularly fruitful relationship with no less an operator than Tom Costello. That said all you needed to know about her ability.

Without Jean, Helen and countless others, there would be no Rachael Blackmore. The Killenaule jockey will go down as one of the greats after winning the Champion Chase on a personal favourite, Captain Guinness, meaning she has all the big prizes on her CV, having previously delivered in the Gold Cup, Champion Hurdle and Grand National.

With Slade Steel scoring in the Supreme, also for Henry de Bromhead, who has saddled all her major triumphs, Blackmore’s Cheltenham tally is now 16.

The next generation of riders had their moments in the sun too and the aptitude illustrated by Sam Ewing and Danny Gilligan came as no surprise to anyone following the game.

Gilligan took the final race of the week, the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Hurdle, on Better Days Ahead, giving Elliott a third triumph of the Festival. Elliott was visibly emotional, his voice cracking as he spoke afterwards.

​Having worked for Pipe, the man who propelled training to a far more professional approach — which didn’t go down well either at the time, interestingly enough — is “a life hero” for the boss of Cullentra House. So this race, one of the lowest of import throughout the four days, has always ranked high on Elliott’s priorities.

That it was a first Cheltenham winner for Noel and Valerie Moran of Bective Stud was more important yet. The pair have ploughed millions into racing, are Elliott’s primary sponsors. They doubled down on their support for the trainer even as other owners departed and Elliott questioned his future in the wake of his six-month suspension, when the photo of him sitting on the dead horse Morgan emerged.

They have been placed countless times at Prestbury Park, and most stomach-churningly, watched Ginto suffer a life-ending broken leg when looking certain to deliver in the Albert Bartlett two years ago. So this meant the world.

Finally, it was a memorable week for Aidan McGarry and his team at Navan. Their inaugural two-day festival had been a success anyway, but that Captain Guinness, Fact Or File, Stellar Story and Limerick Lace would emerge from the November weekend to score at the nirvana of National Hunt is a feather in the cap.

Even more notable is that one apparently disappointing looking five-runner contest for a Grade 2, the Tote Navan Novice Hurdle in December, supplied three Cheltenham winners: Slade Steel, Stellar Story and Better Days Ahead. The runner-up to Slade Steel, Lecky Watson, ran well to be fifth in the Albert Bartlett.

The quality on these shores runs deep.

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