Sunday 17 December 2017


1My first favourite memory of Cheltenham would have to be the first year I went over to the Festival in 1997. I was only 12 and it was the year Dad trained Commanche Court to win the Triumph Hurdle. A day I'll never forget.

After winning two trials for Cheltenham at Leopardstown and Punchestown, Commanche Court was going to the Triumph Hurdle with every chance and they certainly weren't going to leave home without me.

Whatever happened I was going to be there.

Even at that early stage, I knew that Cheltenham was just something different, a special and unique place and I wasn't going to miss it. This was huge.

Ruby led the horse up and I remember watching the race on the grass just in front of a little stand they have at the chute for stable staff where the horses are let out onto the track.

When the horse jumped the last we just started roaring and I'll never forget the excitement as he passed the line and we raced back to the parade ring to welcome him back in.

That was my first year in Cheltenham and I have been back every year since. It was class and one of my best ever days in racing.

2 March 17 2010. A day I will never forget. The best day of my entire life. My first Cheltenham winner.

I flew over to Cheltenham on the Sunday and I remember packing earlier in the day and debating over whether or not to bring my racing gear or not.

Nobody had been on to either myself or my sister Jennifer and I was going just to ride out in the mornings for Willie Mulllins. But just in case I said I'd throw it in anyway - and thankfully I did!

It was actually in the airport that Sunday evening when I got the call out of the blue asking me would I like to ride Poker De Sivola in what we call "the four-miler" or, officially, the National Hunt Chase and I was over the moon to have a ride in Cheltenham. I was buzzing.

The race was on the Wednesday so I was down at the track first thing Wednesday morning to ride him out and it was very early, maybe six o'clock or a quarter past, as soon as the sun was up and we were the first ones out, Poker De Sivola and another horse of Ferdy Murphy's and I gave him a canter around and he seemed well, but I never even dreamt of him winning.

It came to the race itself and the horse was absolutely savage to jump and he winged fences everywhere.

The only one he sort of got a bit tight to was the second last and that could have been a blessing in disguise as I was fearful that I might get to the front too soon so after that I was able to follow Nina down to the last and we jumped it upsides and... well, the rest is history.

I'd cry in a heartbeat anyway to be totally honest but after that I just cried my heart out. Even thinking back on it now, thinking about a Cheltenham winner, I'd nearly start crying to be honest!

Riding your first winner around Cheltenham at the Festival is like winning the lotto, except money can't buy you this feeling.

3So after going from having no ride at the meeting, the following morning I went and rode out for Willie again after a little celebration the night before, and I got back to the house and Jennifer said to me 'Willie's after ringing and is wondering would you like to ride Thousand Stars in the County Hurdle?' and I couldn't believe it.

The horse had come to Willie that season and won first time out in Naas with his head in his chest. Then he went to Fairyhouse for a better race. It was Hennessy Gold Cup day in Newbury, so Ruby was over there to partner Denman - there was a few lads over there - and the horse had a light weight so I picked up the ride and he won again.

I then rode him in what is now the Boylesports Hurdle at Leopardstown and he didn't really enjoy the hustle and bustle of the race and we got no run so he only ran okay that day so he went to Cheltenham as a bit of an outsider.

But going to Cheltenham I never even thought of riding him over there. I didn't even look at the weights to see had he a light weight and wonder to myself 'well, maybe Willie will let me ride him' it never even crossed my mind, so when the opportunity came about, I grabbed it with both hands.

I remember walking the track and thinking there was an awful long run in between the second last and the last hurdle and I said to Dad that I didn't want to be hitting the front too soon and I kept saying that in my head all the way through the race.

Thousand Stars was a great little horse and turned out to give us all some great memories after this but on this day he was winging hurdles and travelling with me everywhere and going to the second last a horse called Izita Star took a terrible fall right beside me with Tom O'Brien. That could have been my race over too. I easily could have been right behind him or he could have come my direction and stopped our momentum but that is the bit of luck you need in those races.

I went on to finish third in the big Grade One at Punchestown behind Hurricane Fly on Thousand Stars that year and had a lot of real good rides on him in big races and he has been a horse of a lifetime for me without a doubt.

4Ruby has enjoyed many magic moments at the Cheltenham Festival and if he was to do a column like this I'd imagine this might well be right up there with his Gold Cups and championship race victories.

It was 2011 and Ruby had been out since the previous November with a broken leg and at one stage his participation at Cheltenham was even in doubt.

He worked extremely hard going to see loads of different people to try and make sure that it would heal as quickly and as well as possible.

There was a lot of people questioning would he be fit enough for Cheltenham, where you have to be at your very best, and people were were wondering if he was fit and strong enough to ride the horses.

And there was a lot of talk in the press, so it was a trying time, and I knew Ruby was putting himself under a lot of pressure to be right.

Before a race had even started he had to choose between Al Ferof and Zaidpour in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle and he went with Al Ferof and won it.

You could see what it meant to him as he crossed the line, the hunger, the determination and the proof that he was indeed fit and strong enough to be there.

He had been out for three-and-a-half months, or maybe even more, and I got a great kick out of that.

He went on to win on Hurricane Fly and Quevega the same day.

5I'll go back to our old favourite, Commanche Court, for my fifth Cheltenham memory. After winning the Triumph Hurdle he went on to be a fantastic horse for us and won an Irish Grand National but he gave us a great thrill when finishing second in the Gold Cup to Best Mate in 2002.

Commanche Court was a huge part of all our lives in Kill.

Ruby was only starting out as a jockey when Norman Williamson won the Triumph on him but even though I was very young at the time I remember riding him out a lot at home because he was such a lovely horse to do anything with.

He was like a pony.

After winning the Triumph Hurdle he came back and won a November Handicap on the flat before going on to win an Irish Grand National with Ruby and a Heineken Gold Cup at the Punchestown Festival. He was an incredible horse.

Going to Cheltenham he had been running well in his trials but he was a 25/1 shot on the day and wasn't a big fancy but we knew he was in good order and would run well.

Ruby was riding for Willie Mullins at this stage but wasn't first jockey at the time, Conor O'Dwyer rode Florida Pearl and Barry Geraghty was on Alexander Banquet so Ruby was on Commanche Court.

We were up against an incredible horse in Best Mate but Commanche ran his heart out and finished second and obviously we were disappointed not to win, but we are all realists as well and we were delighted he ran such a blinder.

If anyone had asked us leaving the ring would you take a place in the first three you'd have said "of course".

There wasn't an ounce of badness in Commanche Court and everything about him from his appearance, to ability, to his attitude and his nature, he just had it all.

If he was a human being he'd have been perfect.

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