Competing with Willie Mullins in his own back yard is a thankless task. Yet one Irish trainer is certainly making a decent fist of it with an impressive 30% strike rate.
Alan Fleming had a successful spell in England before returning to Ireland and setting up base on the Curragh at the yard of high-profile owner Barry Connell. During the summer Connell transferred a number of talented horses from other stables and placed them under Fleming’s supervision. And the trainer has certainly repaid that faith with a terrific winter campaign.
The yard’s most talented inmate looks to be Gwencily Berbas. The French import was a late starter as a juvenile hurdler, and as such was sent to contest the Fred Winter at Cheltenham last March rather than the more challenging Triumph Hurdle. Off a lofty handicap mark, he ran with great promise until fading late on. He returned to action with a stylish win at Naas in November and was then thrown in at the deep end when sent to run in the Grade 1 Hatton’s Grace Hurdle. Clearly highly thought of by connections he performed admirably with a third place finish behind Arctic Fire.
Connell was more than happy with the run, saying: “He's only a four-year-old and it was a big step up, but he acquitted himself well. The handicapper has put him up 11lb to 150, which will make him one of, if not the highest-rated four-year-old in the country, which is great. He was quite immature last season, he's a big-framed horse and hopefully there's plenty of improvement there.”
Of future plans Connell added: “I think he'll be chasing next season and will only have a handful of runs over hurdles this year. He'll be an exciting horse to go jumping fences. I think he prefers nice ground and we wouldn't want to be stepping up in trip with him when it's heavy.” It will be interesting to see if that assessment proves correct, as being a son of Nickname the progeny tend to adore deep winter ground.
Fleming has plenty of others capable of making their presence felt at a high level. Chain Gang has won twice and been placed twice from four starts under rules. A five-year-old gelding by Midnight Legend, he won first time over hurdles at Leopardstown during the Christmas period, when getting up late in gutsy fashion to defeat an Aidan O’Brien gelding. His two defeats in bumpers came when placed behind classy types in Disko and Tombstone. He’s set to step up in class when running at Leopardstown this weekend. I fancy he’s capable of making the frame in graded company.
The trainer must also be excited at the prospect of running The Tullow Tank. Second in a Grade 1 at Fairyhouse last April over fences, he is yet to hit the track this winter, but has reportedly been schooling well and should be out soon. He is a horse of huge potential as shown during his impressive spell as a novice hurdler. If Fleming can get him performing to his best he has the size, scope and natural talent to become a Grade 1 winning chaser.
Another promising youngster ran at Leopardstown over Christmas. Tully East finished back in sixth yet less than eight lengths behind Long Dog in the Grade 1 Paddy Power Future Champions Novice Hurdle. It was a cracking performance from a horse that will surely improve for a step up in trip. The son of Shantou is out of a King’s Ride mare, and ought to be better suited to three miles rather than two. It will be interesting to see where he goes next, and he should make into a fair staying chaser.
Velvet Maker is another that surely has plenty more career wins ahead of him. Beaten badly by Douvan over Christmas, you have to think he’s better than that performance. He’s due to meet Mullins’ Arkle favourite again over the weekend, and although he has little chance of winning, his trainer will be hoping for an improved performance from a horse that is undoubtedly talented.
It’s been a terrific start to what has the look of an exciting journey for both Alan Fleming and Barry Connell. Known for spending a penny or two, the enthusiastic owner is sure to add to the talent already assembled at the yard as this fledgling partnership develops.