British success stories at the Dublin Racing Festival are few and far between – and virtually non-existent when it comes to Grade One contests. But in 2019 La Bague Au Roi broke the mould, as she lifted the roof off the Leopardstown grandstand.
Many had questioned the sanity of trainer Warren Greatrex when fresh from holding off the likes of Topofthegame and Santini in the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase, he suggested heading into the backyard of the Irish rather than trotting down the typical pathway of the Cheltenham Festival.
However, the Lambourn handler had a plan and whereas the undulations of Prestbury Park were never going to be La Bague Au Roi’s ideal cup of tea, the parkland on the outskirts of the Irish capital were seen as the ideal ballpark for the star mare to double her Grade One tally.
“She won the Kauto Star and it was just thinking outside the box really,” said Greatrex.
“We knew historically the ground wasn’t always too bad there and she never really coped with bottomless ground, so it was just the case of a little plan hatched after Kempton and the owners were very sporting and willing to give it a go.
“There was a lot of pressure and a lot of people were thinking I was mad to take an English mare over to a Grade One in Ireland. But I thought the track and ground would suit and Richard Johnson had won the Irish Gold Cup on Florida Pearl so he knew the track inside out.
“I never thought Cheltenham would be her gig, she was fancied the year after and ended up unseating Richard Johnson in the Plate when I thought she would have taken some beating.
“Sometimes thinking outside the box pays off and it pays off to be a little bit braver, which is what sport is all about I think.”
Crossing the Irish Sea unbeaten in three over fences, La Bague Au Roi had every right to be among the favourites for the Flogas Novice Chase.
And when top Irish novice Delta Work was pulled out of the contest by trainer Gordon Elliott, she became the odds-on 10-11 favourite for an away game, leaving her trainer with some last-minute jitters to contend with,
“Delta Work was pulled out in the morning which meant she was a very short-priced favourite. As a trainer you like to see that, but obviously the pressure is then even bigger,” said Greatrex.
“To go over there, which is pretty unusual for the English to go over with a fancied horse, you are sort of panicking. You believe in the horse, but you are panicking and thinking ‘Is this the right thing to do?’.”
If the nerves were beginning to get to Greatrex, then no one informed big-race pilot Johnson, who bounced La Bague Au Roi out in customary fashion and began to put the best of Ireland’s novice chasers to the sword.
Having dictated terms throughout the time came to stamp her authority when challenged by 33-1 outsider Kaiser Black after the last and she displayed toughness in abundance to repel her only danger close home.
It remains the only British triumph in a Grade One at the Dublin Racing Festival and for all the big-race victories Greatrex has won in his training career, it is a day that will live long in the memory.
“There’s a picture I have of her at the last and Richard asked her from miles away and she delivered,” continued Greatrex.
“When you see the picture it’s fairly scary how far she was standing off it and she was all heart and never gave up.
“The Leopardstown win was big. I believed in her and I have to say – and I’ve trained a few Grade Ones – that was one I really enjoyed because to go to Ireland and beat them at their own back door is pretty cool. That win was a big feather in our cap, I think”
La Bague Au Roi would return to Leopardstown the following year to finish a battling fifth in the Irish Gold Cup, but no one can ever take that glorious afternoon from 12 months previous away from her.
It was the final triumph in a 28-race career that yielded 14 victories across the space of six seasons and she is now under the watch of former Premier League and Ireland international footballer Kevin Doyle at his family’s Slaney River Stud in County Wexford.
Always keen to hear about one of his star pupils, Greatrex keeps in contact with those in Ireland who report she shows the same character in retirement as she did when one of the leading lights on the racecourse.
Greatrex added: “I’ve been told that in the paddock she is the boss and she was very much like that here. Everyone knew when she was about as she would walk around Lambourn like she owned it.
“She was an amazing mare and won two Grade Ones and I hope somewhere down the line I can train one of her offspring.
“She was just so straightforward, she never missed a day and you could read her like a book. The more annoying she became, you knew you were having her ready.
“She just went through the grades and was phenomenal. She was like a model to look at, she was tall and leggy, never carried too much condition, but she was just very easy to train and just a brilliant horse to train.
He went on: “You would never look at her at home and think she was exceptional, she went through the motions and wasn’t very fast, but she had a big heart.
“Even when she ran in the Kauto Star, the way she fended them off, she was as tough as a boy and will live long in the memory. They only come around once every so often and she was a one-off I think.”