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Richie McLernon picks up ride on defending champion It Came To Pass

Richie McLernon will take over from Maxine O’Sullivan on It Came To Pass in the St James’s Place Festival Challenge Cup Open Hunters’ Chase at Cheltenham next week.

Trained by Eugene O’Sullivan, It Came To Pass caused a 66-1 shock 12 months ago when ridden by the trainer’s daughter – who is unable to take the mount at the Festival this year because of the current ban on amateur riders amid Covid-19 restrictions.

It Came To Pass has run only twice since, when fourth at Fairyhouse in November before unseating at Thurles last month.

McLernon, now based with Jonjo O’Neill, began his career with O’Sullivan in Cork – and the pair will link up once again.

“He’s in good form, never better,” O’Sullivan said of the 11-year-old.

“Richie McLernon will ride him. He started with me – he’s a family friend and he’s a neighbour.

“He was good enough to ride for me at Cheltenham when I had Trevor Hemmings’ horse there (Arctic Times, sixth in the same race in 2007), and he’s definitely good enough to ride this fella.”

O’Sullivan has ground worries ahead of It Came To Pass prep

It Came To Pass is set to warm up for the defence of his Cheltenham Festival crown with a first outing in over three months in the first race at Thurles on Thursday.

Almost 30 years on from the success of Lovely Citizen in the same race in 1991, It Came To Pass provided trainer Eugene O’Sullivan with his second win in the St. James’s Place Festival Challenge Cup Open Hunters’ Chase in March, with his daughter Maxine in the saddle.

The 11-year-old has run just once since – finishing fourth at Fairyhouse in November – and O’Sullivan admits the prospect of testing conditions for his comeback are a cause for his concern, with his Festival assignment just over three weeks away.

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He said: “He’s in right order, but unfortunately the ground has been horrendous and it looks like it will be horrendous tomorrow as well.

“I’ve said all year that I wouldn’t run him on bad ground, but I just feel he needs a run.

“I’m going against my word by running him, but he is very fresh and needs to do something, even though he’s not at his best on that ground.

“The ground will be against him, but if it wasn’t tomorrow (for a prep run) it was never and Maxine will mind him”

Connections were presented with another headache on the eve of their stable star’s return following confirmation amateurs will not be permitted to ride at this year’s Festival.

Celebrations for Maxine O'Sullivan at Cheltenham
Celebrations for Maxine O’Sullivan at Cheltenham (Simon Cooper/PA)

O’Sullivan senior has raised the possibility of daughter Maxine turning professional to ensure she can take the ride in the Cotswolds, but all discussions are on hold until after It Came To Pass makes his return.

He added: “That news hit us like a ton of bricks today. I really was hoping that ruling would change nearer the time.

“It definitely has us thinking and what’s happening is we will wait until after Thurles to make a decision.

“Maxine was contemplating turning (professional), but there’s pros and cons to that and there needs to be a lot more thinking done about that than just deciding on the spur of the moment.”

Fight gets best of Fairyhouse battle

Stand Up And Fight benefited from a jolting mistake at the last by Billaway to win an informative Irish National Hunt Steeplechase Committee Celebrating 150 Years Hunters Chase at Fairyhouse.

With the first two from the championship event at Cheltenham – It Came To Pass and Billaway – lining up, as well as Mighty Stowaway, Winged Leader and Auvergnat, it had the look of a top-class event of its kind, even at this early stage of the season.

There were still six in with a chance approaching the second last, with all the big guns along with Rocket Man and Lite Duties almost in line.

Patrick Mullins appeared to be holding all the aces on Billaway and he had just taken up the running approaching the last when he gave it an almighty nudge, losing all momentum.

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Aine O’Connor kept Enda Bolger’s Stand Up And Fight up to his work and while Billaway gave chase, he went down by a length and a half to the 16-1 winner.  Mighty Stowaway was third with Festival winner It Came To Pass in fourth.

“That was a pleasant surprise. Obviously Aine has found the key to him as his last couple of runs were very disappointing,” said Bolger.

“We had notions about him before and brought him to Cheltenham last year when he finished sixth, but there has been a question mark about him ever since. We did all kinds of tests but nothing showed up.

“We put blinkers on him today and they have done the trick. Obviously we were lucky with the mistake of Billaway, but they are there to be jumped.

“We were thinking of going for a cross country race at Punchestown with him, but it looks like he’ll have to stay hunter chasing now.”

Trainer Eugene O’Sullivan was more than satisfied with the effort of It Came To Pass.

He said: “I’m delighted with him as he’d have hated the ground. He badly needed the run and, to be honest, that’s as good as I expected him to finish today. You’d always be hoping you could win, but in reality that was as good as he could finish.

“Maxine (O’Sullivan) said that everything went according to plan, but that he hated the ground.

“We might give him a run in a point-to-point, just to be easy on him, somewhere along the line on a nice track with decent ground. If I don’t have to go I’m not worried, but if he does run it will be on nice ground.

“Cheltenham, Fairyhouse and Punchestown is the plan and maybe finish out in Killarney.”