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Porter likely to head straight to Cheltenham

Gavin Cromwell’s new Grade One star Flooring Porter is likely to head straight for the Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham – but a run beforehand has not yet been completely ruled out.

Cromwell will consider the Galmoy Hurdle at Gowran and the Boyne Hurdle at Navan should he have a change of heart and decide another race is needed before the Cheltenham Festival.

Flooring Porter is owned by a syndicate of the same name, whose members had to fork out the supplementary fee to discover their pride and joy was well up to the highest level in the Leopardstown Christmas Hurdle on Monday.

“It was great – it was a gamble supplementing him, but thankfully it paid off, and he was very good,” said Cromwell.

“He’s got a very big engine, and I was delighted. Jonny (Moore) was great on him – I was a bit concerned he’d gone off too hard, but he’d saved plenty.

“The Stayers’ Hurdle is his target now. There’s a very small chance he could go for the Galmoy Hurdle or maybe the Boyne Hurdle, but I’d say they are unlikely, and we might just go straight to Cheltenham.”

Stablemate Darver Star returned to something like his best form at Leopardstown when second to Franco De Port in Saturday’s Racing Post Novice Chase, having disappointed on his previous outing.

“It was a funny sort of race and if Jonny was to ride it again, he might do it a bit different,” said Cromwell

“But still, I was delighted with him, really.

“He had a little wind op after he disappointed before, but I think the ground was a bigger issue. Come the spring, we’d hope he’ll be more at home.”

Cromwell eager to sidestep Envoi Allen clash with Darver Star

Gavin Cromwell will resist a move up in trip for his classy novice chaser Darver Star as he tries to avoid a clash with Envoi Allen.

The County Meath trainer is hoping the very testing ground at Punchestown on Saturday was the cause of Darver Star’s laboured performance when beaten into a near 10-length third as a short-priced favourite.

The eight-year-old, third in last season’s Champion Hurdle when he finished less than seven lengths behind Epatante at Cheltenham, began his chasing career with an impressive beginners’ success at Punchestown last month.

He had no answer, though, to Gordon Elliott’s winner Felix Desjy over a furlong shorter in a Grade Two over the weekend.

“Obviously, we were a bit disappointed,” said Cromwell.

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“He didn’t travel very well in the race – he actually looked a bit slow.

“But the ground was verging on heavy, and he’s a better horse on nicer ground.”

There is no panic yet after one moderate effort – but Cromwell is adamant he wants to keep well out of the way of Elliott’s potential superstar novice Envoi Allen, who appears set to operate at two and a half miles this season after taking his unbeaten career sequence under rules to nine on his chasing debut at Down Royal.

“I think we’ll just have to put a line through it – he didn’t just get slow since March,” he added.

“So I’m not too concerned just yet. He was very good the first day (over fences), and we’ll be aiming him at Christmas.

“All being well, we’ll stick to two miles at the moment.

“You’d like to have the option of going two and a half. But then you don’t really want to come up against Envoi Allen – that is absolutely paramount.”

Cromwell had a little more to smile about three-and-a-half hours later on Saturday – when Letsbeclearaboutit remained unbeaten as he doubled his career tally in the closing bumper.

Reflecting on the five-year-old’s eight-length win, again from Enniskerry whom he had beaten by slightly less on debut and had to give 7lb this time, Cromwell made clear he has significant aspirations for the rest of the campaign.

“He is obviously a very smart horse,” he said.

“He’s going to stay in bumpers for this season. There’s a good chance he’ll probably go to Navan for the Listed bumper there in a month’s time.

“Beyond that, we’ll see. But we’ll maybe look at the Graded bumper in Leopardstown at the Dublin Racing Festival, depending how things progress.”

Darver underlines Star potential on Punchestown chasing bow

Champion Hurdle third Darver Star outclassed his rivals to run out a wide-margin winner on his debut over fences at Punchestown.

Gavin Cromwell’s charge enjoyed a remarkable rise in 2019, improving from a lowly mark of 104 to finishing third behind the hugely-exciting Envoi Allen in the Royal Bond Novice Hurdle at Fairyhouse.

The eight-year-old was subsequently beaten just half a length by top-class mare Honeysuckle in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown, and proved that effort was no fluke when third behind Epatante at the Cheltenham Festival in March.

Making his first competitive appearance since, Darver Star was the 8-13 favourite for the Ladbrokes Watch Racing Online For Free Beginners Chase and jumped well in the main under Keith Donoghue, improving in that particular department as the race progressed.

The Kalanisi gelding moved ominously alongside the pacesetting Star Max rounding the home turn and comfortably extended 12 lengths clear, with Le Musigny making late gains to fill the runner-up spot.

Donoghue said: “He jumped well on the whole. Early on we were going a bit steady and he was a bit asleep and reached at a few, but down the back when I was trying to make up ground, he jumped dead straight and very quick.

“I hadn’t schooled him and it was my first time to jump with him. I think in a good race he’d have no bother.

“He has loads of scope and is well able to use himself. He’s an exciting horse.”

Gavin Cromwell has high hopes for Darver Star
Gavin Cromwell has high hopes for Darver Star (David Davies/PA)

Cromwell was not in attendance due to being in quarantine, having travelled to Newmarket last weekend to saddle four runners in the Cesarewitch.

Speaking from home, the trainer said: “I was delighted with him. His jumping was a bit sticky early on all right, but I think he was just following the horse in front of him.

“When they quickened up I thought he jumped a lot better and he’ll have learnt a lot from today, I’m sure.

“I was happy with the way he finished off. I’m not sure where we’ll go next – I’ve not made any plans just yet.”

Darver Star kicks off chasing campaign at Punchestown

Top-class hurdler Darver Star kicks off his career over fences at Punchestown on Tuesday.

Gavin Cromwell’s stable star was rated just 119 in August of last year, but rose rapidly through the ranks with four successive wins before finishing third behind Envoi Allen in the Royal Bond Novice Hurdle at Fairyhouse.

The eight-year-old subsequently took his game to even greater heights when beaten just half a length by Honeysuckle in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown, and proved that effort was no fluke when third in the Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in March.

Darver Star is set to make his first competitive appearance since in the Ladbrokes Watch Racing Online For Free Beginners Chase, with Keith Donoghue taking over in the saddle from Cromwell’s currently sidelined stable jockey Jonathan Moore.

Cromwell said: “We’re happy with the horse and it will be good to get him started. We’re just hoping for a good, safe round of jumping and we’ll see what happens after that.

“He’ll come on for the run, like all the horses do at this time of the year.

“He hasn’t jumped (fences) on grass yet, but he’s plenty of schooling done.”

Darver Star is one of 10 runners declared for Tuesday’s two-mile-one-furlong contest, with the Gordon Elliott-trained Conflated perhaps his biggest threat.

The Gigginstown House Stud-owned gelding was last seen finishing fourth behind Asterion Forlonge in a Grade One novice hurdle at Dublin Racing Festival in February.

Tony Keenan meets Feidhlim Cunningham

Feidhlim Cunningham – From Trading Room to Training Yard

Racing and betting can be uncomfortable bedfellows, especially if you listen to some trainers about bookmakers, but the association does not seem to bother Champion Hurdle-winning handler Gavin Cromwell. Instead, Cromwell has been using the relationship to his advantage, employing former Paddy Power odds complier Feidhlim Cunningham as his race planner since 2018, writes Tony Keenan.

The pair first met in 2016 when Cunningham acquired Bottleofsmoke, a nine-race maiden, out of a Dundalk claimer in July that year. “He was rated 45 when we got him and we were thrilled to get him up to 68 and I got to know Gavin through that. We were plotting a course with him so I’d ring him and say there’s a race in four or five weeks that would suit and he always seemed appreciative of that. I hadn’t a clue about the training side but it worked well and he also managed to get a win out of a limited bumper horse at Stratford that I had with a few friends.”

Like many before him, Cunningham got into racing at college where he was a self-described ‘maths nerd’ but spent most of his time in University College Galway punting. After that, there were two years at a spread betting firm where the learning curve was steep. “You had to be so accurate there. At Powers, you could be 5’s about something that should be 10’s but you weren’t getting filled in by being too short on it whereas with the spreads, punters can lay the other side of it.”

There followed five years of odds compiling at Powers where he did “mainly Irish racing… learning plenty from the more experienced lads and as you watch racing everyday, your race reading improves.” He loved working there, “I was dying to go into work and did all the extra hours going”, but at the end of 2017 felt it was time for a change. That was where Cromwell came in and asked him if he wanted to place a few horses and two years later he’s still there.

A typical day for the racing manager starts on the gallops for first lot; this is a relatively new development as he tries to improve his knowledge of the pure training side. Cunningham is at pains to point out that his job is “racing manager rather than assistant trainer… my knowledge of the physical animal would be limited compared to lads working them their whole lives; I know that and Gavin knows that, I’m there to do the job of form.”

“From there, it’s back to the office for declarations at 10am, booking jockeys, declaring headgear, doing the entries for five or six days ahead before liaising with owners about their horses.”

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Some parts of the job are not all that different from his previous occupation: “I’d be half pricing races up in my head and trying to rate them one to five in terms of quality to see what our best option is. I try to have a good idea what engagement we will take up from weights stage, the day after declarations while also keeping an eye on other horses’ entries.”

Other parts of the job are just “a lot of boring office stuff like vaccinations” but he often goes racing when the trainer needs representation; that can be a very nice part of the job when things work out, not so much when there is some explaining to do. Dealing with owners is something he enjoys, some of whom will take an active interest in placing their horses, while his background in the betting industry can be useful for those inclined towards a punt.

There is a plan for every horse in the yard, no matter their ability level, and those are done in conjunction with the trainer. “I give him a list of horses and he tells me when they’ll be ready. I can then make a plan, the odd time I’d try to twist his arm. Every horse has a target but those plans are flexible. If it is not working, we will just change it.”

Last year’s Bellewstown July meeting was a time when the plans of a number of horses came together, the yard managing seven winners across the four-day meeting. “We targeted Bellewstown as a festival last year and aimed to have as many runners primed for it as we could. We picked out a number of horses that would be suited to races there four to six weeks beforehand; it just meant that we would go there instead of an alternative race a week or two either side of it. It is Gavin's local track and thankfully things worked out, he got them there in great nick.”

Plans will typically start with the aim of winning a race in Ireland but if the horse is struggling, they are not afraid to travel. “The initial aim is to win at home but the likes of Dundalk can be very competitive in the winter and, as Gavin says, we want winners.” When placing horses in the UK, Cunningham says that the “fully transparent entries and declarations are a massive help to race planners as can see what is entered before the race closes. Not all trainers have time to look through every race and we’ve won several races in Britain because of that, the Perth Silver Cup with Callthebarman was one example.”

Cromwell’s yard has grown exponentially in recent years; from 18 winners in 2016, their winners have gone 28, 45, 88 in the three years since. They were one of six Irish National Hunt yards to have at least 100 individual runners last season along with Mullins, Elliott, de Bromhead, O’Brien and Meade. This spurt is by design: “when I came here, Gavin was saying he wanted to give it a real go, the aim is to keep growing, you either compete or you don’t. We have a great team in the yard. Jonathan Moore has come in as stable jockey and done really well for us; we have one of the leading conditionals in the country in Conor McNamara, who went from strength to strength last season, and we also have the valuable claim of Breen Kane. Everyone in the yard works extremely hard to achieve the best results that we can.”

Part of that scaling up might be getting the bigger owners on board: this is a yard that, outside of JP McManus, is made up of “the smaller man, the medium man, syndicates”. Cunningham points out that “22 of our winners last year cost ten grand or less, we don’t aim for that and would like a higher quality of horse but we work with what we have”. On the broader subject of attracting new owners he says, “you hope what you’re doing with your horses will be evident to lads, we purchased a couple of horses from big owners that we did well with and that might perk their interest. If you do it on the track, you hope these lads will come to you”.

Getting bigger is not without its difficulties and he warns that “you don’t want to lose the personal touch, and Gavin has time for everyone”. Cromwell is described as a “good delegator” and you get the impression he is not afraid to back his staff. He is “upfront with owners which people tend to appreciate”. He also says his boss is “a brilliant judge of when a horse is or isn’t right” though this is more “a feel thing” than rooted in data.

Cunningham says that Cromwell’s best trait as a trainer is that “he gets the best out of them. He is very level-headed, he doesn’t get too down on himself when things don’t go right and he doesn’t get carried away with success. You don’t see many leaving and doing better elsewhere. The job he did with Espoir D’Allen was different class. To win a Champion Hurdle in the fashion he did really put Gavin’s training abilities in the limelight. Every quality horse he has had has fulfilled their potential”. Darver Star was freakish in this regard – “you just can’t explain his rate of improvement” – but there are other highlights from his time in the yard.

Lever Du Soleil won four in a row in the UK last summer. “We had three picked out and knocked a fourth out of it too but it’s not every horse that can go over and back like that. Over there, the way penalties work, you’ve got more chance of running up a sequence. He went from 54 to 84 in 18 days and it’s funny, lads remember that even though it’s low grade, it captures the imagination”.

The late decision to run Jeremy’s Flame (finished second) in January’s Tolworth Hurdle was another proud moment. “She was a late entry for that race getting the allowance and from my time in Powers I am inclined to take on the talking horses that haven’t done it yet so she was entitled to take her chance. 6/1 for a Grade 1 and 6/1 for a handicap on her next start, that was a good bit of placing”.

Patience and looking ahead is important in his job. “Top Of The Charts won four times last season and from a race planning side there were only two hurdles in the whole calendar that were backing up where he could win at the grade and back up under the penalty within 6 days. That worked well when he won at both Down Royal and Clonmel in late August and early September.”

Finding the next one is a major part of his job and one of the most challenging and rewarding aspects. “With the horse-in-training sales, I’ll go through every single horse which is a fair task as there are 1,500 in some of them. I’ll make notes on everything, go to Gavin with a list of 40-50 that I think have upside, he’ll look at them physically and scratch three-quarters of them on physical aspects he doesn’t like, the other 15 we’ll bid on and hopefully come home with four or five.

“He is happy to back me on form and we have done well from these sales. Wolf Prince was a good one, he won twice and finished second in a Grade 1 juvenile hurdle last season while Running In Heels [despite being nine when she joined the yard] won four times in 2018 having been purchased for £2,500.” Cunningham says that one of his strengths is that he comes at it “from a betting & form approach, not taking lads’ word as gospel who might be down on the horse for one reason or another.”

Doing his own video form and analysis, he is inclined to ignore the noise and “go with the formbook or the angle we have that might see them improve”. There are times when he hears something negative afterwards from someone previously involved with the horse but “you have to back yourself and it has worked out so far.”

Tony Keenan was speaking with Feidhlim Cunningham, race planner for trainer Gavin Cromwell