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Resurgent Sexton in dreamland with Belfast Banter

Kevin Sexton thought he was a lost cause two years ago. Now, after a Cheltenham Festival winner, a first Grade One success and with a good ride in the Randox Grand National he is counting his blessings.

The 30-year-old has regained his love for racing and riding thanks to his family and friends that include trainer Peter Fahey.

So it is wholly appropriate the County Kildare-based handler and Sexton have enjoyed their finest hours thanks to Belfast Banter.

Just a few months ago, Belfast Banter was proving difficult to win with – but he too has been transformed by winning at the two biggest meetings in the jumps calendar.

The County Hurdle was a turning point and now Belfast Banter is the winner of the Grade One Betway Top Novices’ Hurdle.

“It’s my first Grade One, it’s Peter’s first Grade One, so it’s a dream come true for us all,” said Sexton.

“The stable has been so good to me. To repay him with these winners, it’s unbelievable. We’re doing it together and breaking these ducks together.

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“I owe most of my career to him. He did his best to keep me going and then got me going again. He does so much for me. Him and his wife Ber have been amazing to me.

“What he’s done in the last few weeks has been amazing and he’s a horse we couldn’t win with.

“I almost gave up riding. I had pretty much given up, but those who helped me I hope they are enjoying it at the minute.

“It’s unbelievable. The last month, it’s hard to believe what has happened.

“It took me a while to digest the County Hurdle so I don’t know how long this is going to take.”

Sexton has forged a real bond with Belfast Banter and he even talked to the horse before the race.

“On the way to the start I was saying ‘if you pull this one off I’ll forgive you if you never win again’ and he’s done it now,” he said.

“He is a good traveller and everything has clicked in the last month. He’s found the will to win. He just wanted to get to the line. He got so much confidence out of winning the last day.

“He’s gone from being in the shadows to being the centre of attention, and he loves it. Ber rides him out most of the time at home. She got a fall last week and hurt herself, so I’ve been riding him out fort the last week. She hurt her shoulder blade, but she’s OK.

“It’s mind-blowing. It’s going to take while to sink in.”

Sexton also cannot believe his luck in getting the ride on Shattered Love for Denise Foster in the Grand National.

“This time last year I was watching myself in the Virtual Grand National, finishing sixth on Peregrine Run having never even rode in one. So much seems to be happening,” he said.

“I don’t think I’d get much sleep without the Grade One winner, so I don’t know how I’m suppose to sleep now.

“Jack Kennedy had a tough decision and chose Farclas. I’m just so lucky.

“It was such a shock to get the ride. I was told I was on the list, but never thought I’d actually get a ride in it.

“To have a ride in it this year is amazing. I said after Cheltenham, anything else that happens is a bonus, but I never expected bonuses like this. I hope it keeps going.

“The plan was to go for the National with Peregrine Run this year, but there was a change of plan. When he wasn’t going for it I never expected to get a run in it. I thought there’s no way, so to ride for Cullentra House is unbelievable, especially the horse it is.”

Belfast Banter graduates to Grade One company in style

Belfast Banter handled the huge step up to Grade One company from handicaps to win the Betway Top Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree.

Peter Fahey’s six-year-old only made it into the County Hurdle off bottom-weight, but he enjoyed the slightly better ground at Cheltenham and looked even better on Merseyside.

For Pleasure adopted his customary role at the head of affairs, with Nico de Boinville keen not to give him too much rope on the favourite Dusart.

Having just his second run, Dusart made several errors and it was to his credit he still had a chance jumping the last. But by then Belfast Banter was still on the bridle.

Do Your Job emerged as the biggest threat, although Kevin Sexton had enough in reserve to see him off by a length and a quarter. Dusart was back in third, a further length and a quarter away. Houx Gris was a relatively early faller.

Fahey said: “I’m absolutely thrilled – we’re celebrating here at home!

“After Cheltenham we picked out this race and I said to the owners we were just hoping he’d go over and run a big race. To come out and win is absolutely unbelievable.

“We went into the race thinking we were riding him to be placed, just because he’s that type of horse that follows along, so to go and win has given us all a massive buzz.

Belfast Banter and Kevin Sexton in full flight
Belfast Banter and Kevin Sexton in full flight (David Davies/Jockey Club)

“I don’t think he’ll go to Punchestown, to be honest. I’ll have a chat with the owners, but he’s not in any of the graded races there.

“The plan was to go to Aintree and if he ran well and went up a couple of pounds, he’d be guaranteed to get into the Galway Hurdle.

“We’ll see what way things are now and see what the handicapper does – we might be out of handicaps now, I suppose.

“The Galway Hurdle is worth a lot of money, but I’d take a Grade One over that any day.”

Belfast Banter has loudest cheer in County Hurdle

Belfast Banter was yet another winner for Ireland when springing a 33-1 surprise for County Kildare trainer in the McCoy Contractors County Handicap Hurdle at Cheltenham.

Ridden by Kevin Sexton, who has having his first Festival winner, the six-year-old came with a terrific run after jumping the last in fourth place to hit the front in the last 100 yards and claim the prize.

Global Citizen, Mengli Khan, Gowel Road and Fifty Ball were among the leaders in the early stages, but there was all to play coming to the second-last where Third Time Lucki made his bid.

That was covered by Milkwoodm with Petit Mouchoir, Eclat De Beaufeu, Edwardstone and Ganapathi also in the mix.

Belfast Banter made his challenge in the centre of track to land the spoils by one and a quarter lengths from Petit Mouchoir with Milkwood a length away third and Eclair De Beaufeu a head back in fourth.

Sexton said: “I’m in shock and it hasn’t sunk in. I was second here a couple of years ago and I never thought I’d get the chance again.

“I came here to ride a favourite yesterday (Royal Kahala) and when she disappointed I thought it would never happen.

“This lad has tended to finish second a lot, I have a love hate relationship with him!

“I thought if we were in the first five we’d be delighted, but he jumped and travelled and took me everywhere.

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“I planned on switching out, but I didn’t get the chance and I was lucky that I never got stopped down the middle and he stuck it out really well.”

Sexton was quick to pay tribute to winning trainer Peter Fahey.

He added: “It was unbelievable when we jumped the last, I got quite emotional. I’d actually given up two years ago, but through the support of my family I gave it one last go and I haven’t looked back since.

“I might have given up, but lucky enough no one else had given up on me. Peter got me back in love with racing and put me on Peregrine Run who I won plenty of races on. Otherwise I might have gone to America.”

Porlock Bay just denied Billaway in a terrific finish to the St. James’s Place Festival Challenge Cup Open Hunters’ Chase.

The pair crossed the line virtually inseparable after a ding-dong tussle on the run to the line, but it was Porlock Bay who got the verdict.

Porlock Bay is usually ridden by his trainer Will Biddick, the most prolific winner of point-to-points in the UK and a winning rider at the Festival, but with amateurs unable to ride due to covid restrictions, he booked Lorcan Williams for the ride.

The conditional jockey proved an able substitute as he got the better of Paul Townend on the Willie Mullins-trained Billaway, was also second 12 months ago.

Staker Wallace was third and Latenightpass fourth.

Williams said: “He jumped the last really well and I’m delighted for Will, who was always sort of an idol of mine growing up. It’s been a pleasure to ride for him.

“We weren’t sure he would stay the last day, but I felt he did stay and I wasn’t overly hard on him. He’s come out fresh today and in really good form.

“I was always one or two off the rail and going down the back I gave him a bit of light and I wanted to make our ground and be handy at the top of the hill.

“He sort of just came alive and I was probably going too well.

“I managed to fill him up and his jumping was so accurate, which has probably just got him there.”

Galopin Des Champs clinched the trainers’ title at the Festival for Willie Mullins when winning the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle.

It was Mullins’ sixth success at the meeting, the same as Henry de Bromhead, but the Closutton handler got the nod on countback.

Galopin Des Champs (8-1) was always travelling well for Sean O’Keeffe and bounded up the hill to beat Langer Dan by two and a quarter lengths, denying Dan Skelton’s runner a £50,000 bonus should he have won at Cheltenham following his victory in the Imperial Cup a Sandown last weekend.

Floueur was nine lengths away in third place, with Whatsupwithyou fourth.

Mullins said: “Sean just bided his time and gave him a very good ride.

“I had this horse entered up in a lot of handicaps and we divided them up as best we could.

“We had two jockeys on the horses we thought had a chance. Gentleman De Mee was just too keen, but he’s obviously a good horse.”