Donn McClean looks back on some sensational days in Irish racing this year, featuring an unforgettable Irish Champions Weekend.
It was a memorable year, many memorable days. Here are five of them.
1. Al Boum Photo, Cheltenham Gold Cup
It wasn’t just the fact that it was another Irish Gold Cup winner. They’re not as rare as they used to be.
We used to wait decades for Irish-trained Gold Cup winners. From Davy Lad to Dawn Run, from Dawn Run to Imperial Call, from Imperial Call to Kicking King, from War Of Attrition to Lord Windermere. It’s not the case these days. Before the 2019 renewal, three of the previous five winners had been Irish-trained. However, never had there been a Willie Mullins-trained Gold Cup winner, and that did not sit easily in the racing micro-universe.
The most successful trainer ever at the Cheltenham Festival, never to have won the Gold Cup? It would be like AP McCoy never winning the Grand National. Mullins had gone close too. Six seconds, no winners. The trainer said that it used to irk him, but a couple of years ago he relaxed about it: if it wasn’t for him, it wasn’t for him.
It was the manner of victory too. Willie Mullins ran four in the 2019 Cheltenham Gold Cup, and the market told you that Al Boum Photo was only number three of four. Then Kemboy unseated and Bellshill pulled up and Invitation Only fell and, in less time than the time that it takes to complete a circuit of Prestbury Park, Al Boum Photo was number one of one.
And it was the back story, the history that Al Boum Photo and Paul Townend had together, from the low of the by-passed final fence at Punchestown less than 11 months earlier, to the high of the Cheltenham Gold Cup, and pinging the last and punching him out up the run-in, and punching the air in the winner’s enclosure.
2. Irish Champions Weekend, Day Two
We know by now that Day Two of Irish Champions Weekend is Irish St Leger day. Or Moyglare Stud Stakes day if you want, or National Stakes day. It was different this year though. This year it was Pat Smullen day.
The Pat Smullen Champions Race for Cancer Trials Ireland was special. Pat Smullen asked the champion jockeys to ride, and they did. AP McCoy, Ruby Walsh, Johnny Murtagh, Paul Carberry, Kieren Fallon, Joseph O’Brien, Charlie Swan, Ted Durcan, Richard Hughes. Never before had such an array of champions been assembled for one race. The original intention was that Pat Smullen would ride in the race too, and it was a real shame that he couldn’t be with them from stalls to winning line, but he was with them for every other step, shaking hands and posing for selfies and speaking willingly into every microphone that was thrust his way.
It was a special day all round, Pinatubo put up a special performance in winning the National Stakes, and there was a Pat Smullen theme. It was fitting that Dermot Weld sent out Tarnawa to win the Moyglare ‘Jewels’ Blandford Stakes, and that the trainer also won the Irish St Leger with Search For A Song, with jockey Chris Hayes wearing the Moyglare Stud silks that were synonymous with Smullen during his riding career.
It rained a little, but that almost added to it all. And AP McCoy and Ruby Walsh fighting out the finish of the Pat Smullen race.
We found out later that over €2.5 million was raised for Cancer Trials Ireland, and that was special too.
3. Tiger Roll, Aintree Grand National
Tiger Roll went mainstream when he won the Grand National in 2018, and he went stratospheric when he went back and won it again in 2019.
There’s something about Tiger Roll. Maybe it’s his breeding, more suitable to Epsom in June than Aintree in April. Maybe it’s his stature, maybe it’s his adeptness of body or his sharpness of mind. Maybe it’s the people around him, the fondness with which they speak of him, the equine characteristics into which they provide a window. The anthropomorphism.
There was a pressure on Tiger Roll in 2019 that wasn’t there in 2018, exerted by the weight of expectation. You didn’t see it in Gordon Elliott’s pre-race demeanour, nor in the ride that Davy Russell gave him. Characteristically smooth, maximum efficiency. In the end, it was easier than it had been in 2018. And there was the bridge to history: the first horse since Red Rum in 1973 and 1974 to win back-to-back renewals of the Grand National.
4. One Cool Poet, Galway
Matthew Smith’s plan was to run One Cool Poet in the handicap hurdle on the Monday, the first evening of the 2019 Galway Festival, but his horse was ballotted out. If he had run on the Monday, he wouldn’t have run on the Tuesday, and the One Cool Poet story of Galway 2019 may never have evolved.
Billy Lee rode the DRFG Partnership’s horse in the one-mile handicap on the Tuesday evening, and he delivered him with Tag Heuer precision to get him home by a neck.
There were celebrations on Tuesday night in Galway, and it was difficult to leave, but Smith did leave, drove the horse and the horse box home from Galway to Meath on Tuesday night.
The plan was to take him back to Galway for the one-and-a-half-mile handicap on the Saturday, but he was unlikely to get into the race, he was number 17 on the ballot so, the horse being well and all, they decided to run him in the one-and-a-half-mile handicap on Thursday instead and, under a 6lb penalty, he won that too.
And, as it turned out, he did sneak into Saturday’s race, and he was still bouncing, so they decided to run him once more and, under the ubiquitous Billy Lee and a 12lb penalty this time, he won again. Actually, he put up his best performance of the week and of his career.
It was a historic victory. Only one horse had won three times at the same Galway Festival before, Busted Tycoon in 2013, and no horse had ever won three times on the flat before at the same festival. Matthew Smith’s only regret was that there wasn’t a race for his horse on the Sunday.
5. Kemboy, Punchestown Gold Cup
It wasn’t just Kemboy’s win in the Punchestown Gold Cup, the strength and resilience that he showed after racing keenly, to see off his top class stable companion, the Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Al Boum Photo. It was also the ride that Ruby Walsh gave him, and the significance of it that only the rider appreciated at the time.
Barry Geraghty nominated the ride for Ride of the Season. Ruby Walsh, saving energy in front in the face of competition, first from Definitly Red, then from Al Boum Photo. Sitting still until he landed over the second last fence, then go. And waving to the stand, out of character, his final ride, after crossing the winning line.
What followed was extraordinary. Even Willie Mullins didn’t know that it was Ruby Walsh’s last ride until the rider told the trainer in the winner’s enclosure that he would need to get a different rider for Livelovelaugh in the handicap chase later on the day. And a send-off for one of the greatest exponents of his craft that there has ever been.
There was an unusual atmosphere at Punchestown that day. Sad but celebratory. Special day.