Michael O’Leary will travel to Cheltenham next week with an outstanding chance of winning the most prestigious prize, the Gold Cup.
His Gigginstown silks will be carried by two of the top five in the betting, and the pair of ‘Dons’ may yet be accompanied in their quest by Road To Riches and Valseur Lido. Certainly if Noel Meade has any say at all, last year’s Gold Cup third will be heading to Prestbury Park for another crack at the main event. The Willie Mullins trained Valseur Lido was cruising when tipping up at Leopardstown in the Irish Gold Cup, and his trainer also favours the blue riband.
It is without doubt Gigginstown’s most powerful team of staying chasers, and though nothing in this game is certain, O’Leary must feel that this is his greatest opportunity of adding to that lone victory from War of Attrition back in 2006.
On that occasion, the son of Presenting, ran on powerfully up the famous hill to defeat the Grand National winner Hedgehunter. He’d always shaped as if likely to make a stunning staying chaser, and so it proved.
Trained by Mouse Morris and frequently ridden by Conor O’Dwyer, he had finished second to Brave Inca in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle of 2004. Sent off at 33/1 that day, he ran an absolute cracker to push the favourite all the way, only going down by a neck as the two pulled seven lengths clear of the third. That performance probably fooled connections into believing that he could mix it over the minimum trip when sent over fences.
His first campaign therefore as a chaser proved a little disappointing, when he failed to make a major impact over an inadequate two miles. He could only manage seventh in the Arkle Chase, though did win over the minimum trip at the Punchestown Festival.
The following winter proved far more successful when stepped up in distance. His second place finish in the Lexus Chase behind Beef or Salmon proved that he was capable of mixing it with the very best staying chasers. Given a break and freshened up for a tilt at the Gold Cup, he arrived in the Cotswolds as the 15/2 third favourite of the 22 runners.
He again locked horns with Beef or Salmon, and on this occasion, on a sounder surface, proved far too good. Beef or Salmon was again a huge disappointment at a track he always failed to master. In five visits to Prestbury Park, he only managed to run to his best on one occasion; when fourth to Best Mate in the Gold Cup of 2004.
“You dream about these things,” said Mouse Morris after the win. “I've always had a lot of faith in him. I have always said he is one of the best I have ever had and I think he proved that.”
The victory was a second in the Gold Cup for jockey Conor O'Dwyer, having won on Imperial Call 10 years earlier. He said: “It was an easy ride, he pinged the last two fences when he just stood off and he loves racing. This is an emotional moment and we made the right decision to come here - it has paid off. He jumped super and we had a great run - I had to come wide but he is only a second-season novice so I didn't want to be too tight on him either. When I wanted to go he was able to go, which was a huge plus.”
War Of Attrition followed up at Punchestown in the Guinness Gold Cup, and looked set to dominate for years to come. Unfortunately the following winter he met with a setback after a disappointing run in the Lexus Chase. He spent almost two years off the track, and although he returned to win a number of graded events, he was never quite the same horse.
For his regular partner Conor O’Dwyer, the famous win in 2006 came during a purple patch in the rider’s career. He’d shot to prominence riding Imperial Call to victories in the 1996 Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup at Leopardstown and then the Cheltenham Gold Cup. The win at Leopardstown was the first time O'Dwyer had ridden the horse.
An ecstatic jockey waved an Irish Tricolour as he rode back to the winner's enclosure at Cheltenham, having given Ireland their first win in the race since Dawn Run 10 years earlier. The scenes of celebration were quite incredible. When asked for his comments, trainer Fergus Sutherland appeared lost for words but then said: “He put them in their place didn't he. I've thought this horse could win a Gold Cup since he was five and he has improved every day this year.”
Several years later another famous partnership brought more glory the way of O’Dwyer. The ride on the Dessie Hughes trained Hardy Eustace came about after the tragic death of regular partner Kieran Kelly, after a fall at Kilbeggan in 2003. The young jockey suffered severe head injuries and died in hospital.
Kelly had been on-board when Hardy Eustace took the Royal and SunAlliance Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham in 2003. The following year O’Dwyer rode a flawless race in the Champion Hurdle; setting perfect fractions up front and successfully holding off Rooster Booster by five lengths. “I thought that big days like this had passed me by over the last two or three years,” said O’Dwyer, “and obviously what happened to Kieran makes it very emotional. It was a spare ride for me in a way - it should have been Kieran's.”
They had landed the prize at odds of 33/1, but as history repeatedly tells us; a love of the track often proves vital at the Festival. The pairing followed up at Punchestown just a month later, proving that Cheltenham had been no fluke.
The following year the pair arrived at Cheltenham looking to make it three Festival wins on the bounce. One opponent in particular managed to split public opinion. Harchibald arrived at Cheltenham having won a Fighting Fifth and a Christmas Hurdle, and was one of the most talented two mile hurdlers around. However, he was not without his quirks and his resolve when the going got tough was questionable. He was ridden to arrive on the scene at the last moment, and the man charged with the task of getting him there was the master of the waiting ride, Paul Carberry.
When he cruised alongside O’Dwyer after the last flight, victory looked assured. However, in one of the most incredible finishes, Hardy Eustace was galvanised for one final lunge at the line, and somehow managed to repel his enigmatic challenger, with Brave Inca a neck further back in third. The race-notes say it all about the gallant winner, ‘made all, strongly pressed, found extra’.
Further high profile wins followed, but having taken out his training license in 2007, O’Dwyer began to reduce his number of rides. It’s fair to say that training horses has proved rather less successful than riding them, though that wonderful period that brought partnerships with War Of Attrition and Hardy Eustace was always going to be tough to follow.