WHILE Willie Mullins along with stable jockey Ruby Walsh ruled the roost at last week’s Cheltenham Festival, becoming the leading trainer and rider, it was Conor O’Farrell who stole the show on St Patrick’s Day.
The Kilmoganny jockey flew the flag for his native county, giving Buena Vista a superb ride to land the Pertemps Final a Listed Handicap Hurdle over three miles.
Ahead almost from the drop of the flag, 21-year-old O’Farrell showed the coolness of a veteran. He gradually wound up the pace from the top of the hill and had his 22 rivals in trouble well before the straight.
Keeping up the relentless gallop, Buena Vista pinged the final flight and ran straight as a gun barrel up the hill to win convincingly by four lengths from the Irish challenger Son Amix, returning to a monster Kilkenny roar as many in the huge attendance had backed him at odds of 20/1.
This victory will certainly come as a confidence booster to young Conor, who has experienced the ups and downs of racing since joining the David Pipe yard last season. At Taunton last month he became unseated from Arrayan with the winning post in sight but in the very best traditions bounced back to show his true mettle with this success.
Conor certainly has racing in his blood - his older brother James won the American Grand National aboard Percussionist at Far Hills, New Jersey last year. His father Seamus has enjoyed many victories as a trainer as well as an owner, while his grandfather Jimmy is a familiar figure at meetings the length and breadth of the country. Martin Pipe, who broke every conceivable record as a trainer, told me that O’Farrell joined the yard on the recommendation of Charlie Swan. A talented rider with a good racing brain, he is great value for his 5lb riding allowance.
Tuesday’s opening session saw the theory that the progeny of Montjeu don’t perform around the Cotswold circuit blown to kingdom come as Hurricane Fly gave Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh their first Champion Hurdle success.
Denied a run at the festival for the past couple of years due to injury, the seven-year-old went to post a heavily-supported favourite. Hurricane Fly raced behind the leaders in what was regarded as one of the ‘hottest’ Champion Hurdles of recent times.
Barry Geraghty aboard Oscar Whiskey kicked for home coming down the hill to the second last but the long-time leader Peddlers Cross was not giving in without a battle, while Hurricane Run could be seen making significant progress just in behind. Walsh was now in the drive position on the latter and the combination hit the front at the final flight before running on strongly up the final punishing climb to land the spoils by a length and a quarter from Peddlers Cross. For good measure the other Mullins runner, Thousand Stars, filled fourth position eight or so lengths off the winner.
Like most of the progeny of his sire Hurricane Fly can get worked up before the start of his races. He was noticeably sweating on the way to post but with the aid of earplugs he settled after a couple of hurdles. A horse that was good enough to win at Listed level on the flat, Hurricane Fly has now assumed the mantle of being the best two mile hurdler around. He will not go to Aintree but instead he will be aimed at the Punchestown festival at the beginning of May - what a crowd-puller he is going to be.
Most successful trainer
Mullins became the most successful active Irish trainer at the festival outstripping Edward O’Grady when he saddled Quevega to land the David Nicholson Mares Hurdle for the third year running. With 19 festival winners under his belt Mullins is closing in on Tom Dreaper’s tally of 26 and within sight of Vincent O’Brien’s 23 victories.
Starting at a shade of odds-on Quevega was held up well off the pace by Ruby Walsh in this three mile test of stamina but she began to pick off her rivals coming down the hill. Walsh had only to release an inch of rein for her to hit the front on the run to the final flight and from there she sprinted clear to win unchallenged by ten lengths from Sparky May.
Aintree is now very much on the cards but it’s not outside the bounds of possibility that she will take on Big Bucks and others in next year’s World Hurdle.
Mullins went on to complete a double on the final day when Final Approach came from the next parish to snatch the Vincent O’Brien County Hurdle right on the line from the gambled on Get Me Out Of Here. Sir Des Champs responded to a superb ride from the trainer’s nephew Emmet to land the conditional jockeys handicap hurdle.
Our Cheltenham review would not be complete without mentioning Louise Doyle from Oakwood, Kilkenny, who looked after all our travel arrangements. A staunch black and amber supporter, Louise left no stone unturned to ensure everything went smoothly.