Prominent owner Michael Masterson is taking nothing for granted as he looks to end a 13-year wait for a second winner at the Cheltenham Festival – despite possessing two of Ireland’s leading contenders in Appreciate It and Kilcruit.
A native of Achill Island off the west coast of County Mayo, Masterson’s interest in racing was spiked after moving across the Irish Sea to set up his construction business in Britain.
He said: “There was no racing on the island. I was into Gaelic football and soccer as a child and I suppose it was when I got into the construction industry that I became more interested in racing.
“Farming is linked to jump racing and I’ve found the construction industry to be much the same.”
Masterson first became involved with racehorse ownership in the late 1990s, enjoying big-race victories with the likes of Punchestown winner Cherub, trained by Jonjo O’Neill, and Balder Succes, who won 11 races including Grade Ones at Ascot and Aintree for Alan King.
In 2008, Masterson secured his first and only Cheltenham Festival success to date, with the Tom Hogan-trained Irish raider Silver Jaro springing a 50-1 surprise in the County Hurdle.
Like the current horses Masterson has in training in Ireland, Silver Jaro carried the blue and green colours of his daughter, Margaret.
He said: “We weren’t going to run Silver Jaro as Tom thought he wasn’t good enough. He came over with another horse of ours called Kalderon. I insisted that Silver Jaro ran as well and the rest is history.
“Tom kept saying all the way round that he’ll be pulled up as he’s not going that good, but then all of a sudden jumping the second-last he said, ‘this fella might win’!
“It was Tom Hogan’s first winner at Cheltenham, it was Noel Fehily’s first winner at Cheltenham and it was my first winner at Cheltenham, so it was an amazing day.”
Since that sole Festival victory, Masterson has hit the crossbar on several occasions, perhaps most heartbreakingly with the Harry Fry-trained Neon Wolf.
The high-class gelding was considered one of the bankers of the meeting in 2017, but ultimately lost out by a head to Willoughby Court in a pulsating renewal of what is now the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle. Neon Wolf was fatally injured in a freak accident a few months later.
In more recent years much of the Masterson family’s success has been with horses trained by Willie Mullins – the winning-most trainer in Festival history.
However, it has still been the case of so near yet so far as far as the Festival is concerned for Masterson.
“I love the Festival and I would guess I’ve been going for the last 40 years. I remember being there when Dawn Run won the Gold Cup (in 1986) and was probably there before that,” he said.
“I have a box at Cheltenham these days and have always enjoyed that part of the world. It’s just a shame owners and the crowds won’t be there this year.
“Neon Wolf was obviously second in the Ballymore and I’ve had the second in the Champion Bumper in two of the last three seasons, with Carefully Selected (in 2018) and Appreciate It last year.
“Both horses in the bumper were beaten by other Mullins horses, so I’m going to have to tell Willie not to run anything other than our horse this year!”
A year on from being out-speeded up the famous Cheltenham hill by stablemate Ferny Hollow, Appreciate It will this year line up as a warm order for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
Mullins has admitted he expected the seven-year-old to be campaigned over longer distances this term, but his back-to-back Grade One wins at Leopardstown has earned him a shot at the traditional curtain raiser over two miles.
Masterson said: “I think Appreciate It is probably the best horse I have ever had. I know Neon Wolf was good and I would say Balder Succes was kind of between a Grade Two and Grade One horse.
“Whatever happens in Cheltenham this year, I think Appreciate It is going to be a fantastic chaser and he owes me nothing at the minute.
“He won the big bumper at the Dublin Racing Festival last year, he was second at Cheltenham and this season he’s won two Grade Ones over hurdles – you could wait a lifetime for a horse that can do that, couldn’t you?”
Masterson’s other big hope is Kilcruit, who heads the betting for the Weatherbys Champion Bumper following a brilliant display at Leopardstown’s Dublin Racing Festival last month.
Bought privately after finishing second on his debut for Mullins’ brother, Tony, the Stowaway gelding was bred by the pair’s mother Maureen, and named after her home town.
Masterson said: “Kilcruit obviously had a run for Tony Mullins and Willie suggested I buy him, although I think Willie’s mum still owns him in her heart! It would be nice to pull it off at Cheltenham, mostly for the Mullins family.
“Patrick (Mullins) has liked him since day one, but I think he took Willie a little bit by surprise in Leopardstown.
“I don’t think anyone expected him to win so easily. Patrick said to me in the morning that if he finishes in the first five he’ll have run a good race, so it was unbelievable to see him do what he did.”
Despite his enviable hand, past experience has taught Masterson that anything can happen.
He added: “It’s very exciting to have two big chances, but don’t forget last year I had the odds-on favourite for the National Hunt Chase in Carefully Selected and the hot favourite favourite for the Champion Bumper in Appreciate It – and got beaten in both.
“Having had so many seconds in recent years, I am a bit nervous. I’m already consoling myself, saying ‘these two horses won at Leopardstown and have done well all year, so whatever happens at Cheltenham is a bonus’. I know whatever happens they’re both good horses.
“Cheltenham is Cheltenham and it’s hard to win. Both horses deserve to be there and we’ll just have to see what happens on the day.”