The Real Whacker will have the weight of history on his shoulders in Saturday’s Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham, but his trainer Patrick Neville is unconcerned.
It is two years since the Irish handler made the move from his home in County Limerick to set up at Ann Duffield’s Sun Hill Farm in the Yorkshire Dales, a switch which coincided with the unearthing of a horse that would take his career to new heights.
The Real Whacker was a €21,000 purchase by Neville as an unraced three-year-old in 2019 – and but for the Coronavirus pandemic, there is every chance he would now be in different hands.
“I took a chance on him as I bought him myself a store horse and I had him a year and a half before he was ready to run in a point-to-point. The plan was to run him in a point-to-point and sell him,” Neville explained.
“I knew he was a good horse, we had him ready to run in a point-to-point as a four-year-old and then Covid struck and that was it.
“We said that was our chance gone then as he was a five-year-old, so said we’d keep him and give him a run on the track.”
The Real Whacker finished sixth of 18 as a 150-1 shot on his racecourse debut in a Listowel maiden hurdle in the autumn of 2021, after which he was packed up to make the move across the Irish Sea.
It did not take him long to make an impact on British soil, bolting up at Carlisle in Duffield’s name, as Neville – who currently trains a string of around 20 horses and rides his stable star every day – worked on getting set up in the UK in his own name.
He said: “When we ran him in Listowel the ground was a bit too good and he was a couple of weeks off being really ready. He had an educational run and he ran very well.
“It was a good race he won in Carlisle and we then took him to the Grade Two in Doncaster (River Don Novices’ Hurdle), where he was a bit unlucky because there was a woeful head wind that day, he got pulled across the track in the straight and lost a lot of ground. He was still a bit green at that stage as well as it was only his third run, so it was a good run to finish second (to Mahler Mission).
“He was to run in the Albert Bartlett then, but he got a knock so we didn’t run him and he was left off then for the season. He came back and had run over hurdles at Cheltenham in October on ground that was a bit quick for him and we decided after that we’d go straight over fences.”
While the son of Mahler was clearly a high-class operator over the smaller obstacles, it is since being switched the larger obstacles that he has really excelled – winning each of his three starts to date, all at Cheltenham, including the narrowest of Festival triumphs over leading Gold Cup contender Gerri Colombe in the Brown Advisory in March.
“I always thought he was going to be a proper chaser. His run in Doncaster showed me that he was a real good horse and the day he won in Carlisle, the way he pulled away from good horses over three-mile-one, he just galloped away from them,” said Neville.
“Going to Cheltenham in March, I wasn’t even thinking of any other horse in the race, only our own horse – that’s the way I think every day.
“You could be sizing up everything else and thinking about different tactics and all that, but I just like to think of our own horse and what we’re going to do.
“Gerri Colombe is a good horse, he’s proved it every time he’s run. I’m still listening to people saying ‘if there was another stride’ he’d have won, but life is full of ifs and buts, isn’t it?
“If they both run in the Gold Cup and he annihilates us, well isn’t it good to be there taking him on and having a go?
“I had a great craic with the owner of Gerri Colombe (Brian Acheson) in Aintree earlier in the year. He’s a good sport and if we finish second to him in the Gold Cup we wouldn’t mind!”
Having sidestepped a small-field engagement at Carlisle a couple of weeks ago, The Real Whacker will instead make his comeback on familiar territory in one of the season’s most prestigious handicaps with 12st on his back.
Al Ferof 11 years ago was the last horse to carry top-weight to victory in the Paddy Power Gold Cup, while you have to go back to Dublin Flyer in 1995 to find the last winner rated in the 160s.
Neville, though, is not one for worrying about statistics, instead focussing on getting his pride and joy to Prestbury Park in the best possible shape for what he views as a starting point rather than the end goal for the season.
He said: “I don’t get too nervous about these things. All we can do is look after him and get him there healthy and well and fit and as good as we can.
“I don’t take much notice of all this carry on with people saying ‘if he doesn’t win on Saturday, he’s not this or he’s not that’. It’s only the start of the season for us.
“He’s come back a bit stronger, so we’d be hoping he’d improve. He’s only ran seven times, so he’s still a very lightly-raced horse for his age.
“We gave him that time and gave him time between races because he’s such a lightly-framed horse and he tries so hard. Even in his work and his cantering he puts everything in, so I think if you ran him too often you’d end up with a very light horse.
“He’s fit and ready for his run and whatever happens on Saturday, and I’d be expecting a big run, he’ll definitely improve.
“You can’t be confident in a race like that, but we’re going there hoping he’ll run very well.”
While looking forward to this weekend’s assignment and another stop or two along the way, in Neville’s mind there is one day that matters above all else and it arrives in four months’ time.
He added: “We’re working back from the Gold Cup and after Saturday we’d be looking forward to Christmas and going for the King George. There’s no reason why not, there isn’t a whole pile else.
“The Cotswold Chase at the end of January might be nearly too near the Festival, so if he ran at Christmas we might just leave him then, but we’ll see.
“Obviously there’s a lot of water to flow under the bridge between now and March and there’ll be a lot of talk about different horses and there’s always a new kid on the block coming.
“There’s a lot of good horses around at the moment, but we have something to dream of anyway, which is what it’s all about.”