To gauge how exclusive the company Niall Houlihan is trying to join in Wednesday’s Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase it helps to not only examine how many famous names are on the roll-of-honour but how many aren’t.
There’s no Dunwoody or Francome. Jonjo O’Neill never rode a winner of the two-mile championship either. The legendary Fred Winter failed to win it before his retirement from the saddle. More up to date and there’s no Davy Russell or Paul Carberry. Rachael Blackmore’s missed out too.
It’s a rare opportunity then for Houlihan to be legged onto Editeur Du Gite for today’s festival feature. Jockeys cutting their teeth with conditional claims normally don’t get championship opportunities like this.
However, the 22-year-old rider from Dungarvan in Co Waterford has already proven his capacity for making the most of chances given to him.
A career tally to date of 64 winners includes January’s Grade One Clarence House Chase where Houlihan and Editeur Du Gite secured a hugely exciting victory over the two favourites for today’s race, Energumene and Edwardstone.
There were plenty excuses made for the big two, ranging from a lack of 100 per cent fitness, to the dangers of each man-marking the other too much and allowing the winner rope from the front that was hard to overcome. Even the fences being painted a whiter shade of pale got thrown out as a theory.
There was rare unanimity though about how Editeur Du Gite was helped by both Paul Townend and Tom Cannon getting ridden to sleep by their young inexperienced rival. No less than Ruby Walsh led the compliments.
Cheltenham’s most successful ever rider, himself a triple-Champion Chase winner, said: “I thought Editeur Du Gite was a good winner of the Clarence House, but I thought he got a brilliant ride and I think when you need a brilliant ride to win a championship race, it’s hard to win a second, and I think that’s what he got.”
It’s a view that tallies with a lot of people’s expectations about the likely outcome this time – Editeur Du Gite got away with it once but won’t again. Naturally, Houlihan disagrees.
“They can dismiss it all they want but at the end of the day we won a Grade One and they can’t take it off us now,” he says.
“The others may have had excuses and I’m sure they’re valid. But he’s a Grade One-winning horse. Even at Kempton [when winning the Desert Orchid Chase] he put up a very good performance and that was dismissed as well. He has every right to go there with every chance,” Houlihan adds.
If the horse continues to confound expectations, then so does his rider. Unable to use his claim at the top level, connections of the Gary Moore-trained star continue to put their trust in the young pilot.
Editeur Du Gite used to be Josh Moore’s ride until his career-ending fall. The trainer’s other son, Jamie, a Champion Chase winner himself on Sire Du Grugy in 2014, could have stepped in this season But Houlihan has sparked the horse into the form of his life and has been rewarded.
“Even at Kempton I didn’t know if he’d be my ride but Jamie had to go to Chepstow for the Welsh National and every opportunity I’ve got on the horse I’d like to think I’ve grabbed it with both hands.
“After the Desert Orchid, the boss said ‘your horse’ is going for the Clarence House when it got rescheduled. That was a boost for me.
“I know I’m only 22 but I know racing. I’ve always been around it and I understand it. I know where I stand in this yard. I’m second jockey, the stable conditional, and if Jamie had got back on the horse I could have no quarrel, that’s just the way it is. But the fact I’m left on, I’m very grateful,” he explains.
It’s not that long since Houlihan was studying for his Leaving Cert in St Augustine’s College and pleading for half-days during Cheltenham week.
With racing connections on both sides of his family, perhaps his biggest influence has been the veteran trainer John Kiely. The youngster acknowledges the man who bids for his own festival glory in today’s finale with the much-fancied A Dream To Share is a pivotal figure.
“He’s two fields down the road from me and from age 11 he gave me a job milking cows and working horses in the morning,” he recalls. “He’s a remarkable man and he taught me even more about life than he did about horses. I got a very good grounding.”
Houlihan’s brother had a link to Sussex-based Moore, father of not just Josh and Jamie but a certain other flat jockey called Ryan. What he wanted and found were opportunities, but none to compare to a shot at Champion Chase glory.
“It’s what you dream of. Cheltenham was the holy week for us, the few days of the year when mum would let us have a half day from school. It’s top level, there’s nowhere beyond it; if you win the Champion Chase, you’re the quickest chaser over two miles in the world,” he says.