Pope put paid to Chance gallop

 

The Gold Cup-winning trainer Noel Chance has a bone to pick with Pope John Paul II. Well, it's really the Office of Public Works that's the problem, but His Holiness has to get a mention too.

Back in 1979, when the crowds at the Phoenix Park were jumping up and down with excitement at the Pope's visit, they were also jumping up and down on Chance's workplace - and wrecking it. A long tradition of racehorses being trained near Dublin's city centre was almost over.

"I had to pull out of the Phoenix Park because of the Pope!" Chance declares. Now he can view it as a great dinner table yarn but at the time, Chance was worried.

Less than four years after taking out a licence to train, Chance, and other trainers like Jim Bolger, had nowhere to practice the basic prerequisite of training; i.e., gallop horses.

"The Board of Public Works wanted us out and wanted the trainers to indemnify themselves for £1 million. They were worried a horse might get out, go belting down O'Connell Street and kill someone. But they didn't realise we could get such insurance for relatively little money," Chance remembers.

That's where the Papacy comes in. The Board Of Works, faced with a million people turning up for the Pope, used a multitude of wooden stakes to corral the crowds into sections and, when His Holiness left, they pulled out the stakes but didn't fill in the holes. End of gallops.

Chance, originally from Dublin's North Circular Road but brought up near Downpatrick, is now 49 and has experienced almost every sling and every arrow racing has to throw. Yet enthusiasm could be his middle name.

Essentially upbeat and pleasant anyway, the Lambourn-based trainer is especially so now. It's only three years since he won jump racing's greatest prize, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, with the ruggedly brave Mr Mulligan. Since then, he has had to virtually build his career again from scratch and just when that career needed a flagship horse, Looks Like Trouble hoved into view. A SunAlliance winner last year, he has developed into the Gold Cup third favourite, and Chance can feel that festival fever again.

Since he has a 50 per cent record of two winners from four runners at Cheltenham, his belief that Looks Like Trouble can overcome the champion, See More Business, the young hopeful, Gloria Victis, and Ireland's own Florida Pearl has to be taken seriously.

It has certainly been taken seriously by a media horde who have been eager to pick over the remnants of the dispute between Looks Like Trouble's owner and rider Norman Williamson that saw the latter jocked off.

"I was at one of those Cheltenham nights at Cork recently and I was asked by a guy in the audience why it had happened - and Norman Williamson was sitting next to me! The possibilities for defamation were endless," Chance laughs.

"Basically there was a breakdown in confidence and trust between owner and jockey, and when that happens they have to go their separate ways. Particularly the jockey. If he loses, aspersions are cast on him and if he wins, he will be asked why didn't he win the last day. It had nothing to do with me," he states.

The startling dip in Chance's fortunes after Mr Mulligan's Gold Cup victory had little to do with him either. Mr Mulligan's owner, Michael Worcester, Chance's main client, dramatically cut back on his racing interests and Chance was left with 10 horses.

Remarkably, Chance now views it as a positive event allowing him to be a fully public trainer, and that outlook currently sees him with 30 horses at the famous Saxon House Stables, home of the 1973 Gold Cup hero, The Dikler, whose box Looks Like Trouble now occupies.

"A lot of people portrayed Mr Mulligan as a 20 to 1 fluke and I might actually have done better if he'd won the SunAlliance the year before when he was favourite. But it's worked out," he states. Helped in no small way by Looks Like Trouble, who bounced back to top form in the Pilar Chase after a woeful King George effort. Is he an in-out performer? The response is instant.

"No. He's like one of these fellas who's always in good form. He's just got a sunny disposition on life and he's always eager to please," says Chance, who is loathe to compare him with Mr Mulligan.

"Looks Like Trouble is a quicker horse that's easier to handle and ride but I wouldn't like to malign the other lad. Mr Mulligan knew only one way, from the front, and he had enough talent to burn off the others. There are more options with this one," he declares.

In an above average Gold Cup, all options will be welcome and Chance is under no illusions about casualties being taken. "I'm sure there will be a fast pace because See More Business won't allow a slow one. Fitzy (Mick Fitzgerald) will take the race by the scruff of the neck and then we'll see about Gloria Victis. He'll either be another Arkle or out with the washing.

"Florida Pearl looked anything but a Gold Cup horse up to his last race, but I think he finds very little off the bridle and Dorans Pride finished too close to him. At the finish of the Hennessy it looked like he won easy, but if Paul Carberry had let him down I'd say there wasn't much there.

"As for See More Business beating us at Wetherby, I underestimated him that day. I was foolish and left too much to work on but you can't be 110 per cent on day one."

It all sounds eminently logical, and considering the trainer's Gold Cup pedigree, it's also very persuasive. Chance has learned this game the hard way and experience tells him another Gold Cup won't open up a box of wonders. He hopes to have an economically viable string of 40 for next season, but one thing he will not be doing is returning home.

"It's impossible in Ireland. I have owners now who sent me the mare, Ma Petite Rouge, from Ireland because it's so competitive and they were sick of being balloted out of races. Within six weeks of being over here, she'd won.

"I've always said the one country to live in is Ireland. There's quality food, quality drink, quality people. It's a phenomenal place, but training wise it's virtually impossible," he says, before nominating one other all too familiar downside.

"When I was over recently, it struck me it's turning into one big car-park. It's like the M25! If you turn a corner you meet a set of traffic lights and the amount of cars on the road is incredible. Per capita, it must be worse than England," he grins.

If Looks Like Trouble can overcome any potential traffic problems on Thursday and beat See More Business, Florida Pearl et al, then such considerations will be immediately forgotten. More importantly, it will be ultimate vindication of the trainer and his resolution. That would be something to applaud. Maybe even the Pope might join in.