Cheltenham 2021: Aidan Coleman ready to reel in the big fish
Cork jockey has eyes on some of the biggest prizes including Champion Hurdle
Coleman celebrates as he rides Paisley Park to victory in the Stayers’ Hurdle in 2019. Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images
The jockey from Co Cork had ridden almost 1,000 winners before finally landing a first Grade 1 victory.
An irregular heartbeat scuppered his chance last year but Paisley Park is back in pole position to regain the Stayers’ crown next week.
However, whereas once he was Coleman’s standard bearer he is now one of a list of enviable festival rides.
Principal among them is the Champion Hurdle winner Epatante who defends her title against another star mare, Honeysuckle, on Tuesday.
“Numbers wise the winners have always been there. I had big winners too but the overall quality probably didn’t reflect that. Paisley Park was my first Grade 1 and I’d had almost a thousand winners by then.
“But in the last couple of years the quality has really gone forward. It’s been a long process but I’ve got four really good rides in the four championship races - the four biggest races of the season,” Coleman said.
It’s the consequence of a lot of work by a focussed individual who recalls finishing his Leaving Cert on a Friday and by Monday working for Best Mate’s trainer Henrietta Knight in Lambourn.
If numbers of winners quickly started clocking up - including a Welsh Grand National in 2014 - the step up to regularly contending in the very best races came more slowly. Perseverance, though, has paid off.
Barry Geraghty’s inability to be in two places at once meant Coleman successfully substituted for JP McManus’s No1 rider on the emerging Epatante at Newbury 16 months ago.
Geraghty’s retirement last summer meant the Champion Hurdle winner needed a new jockey. Coleman felt an obvious pick for both McManus and trainer Nicky Henderson.
The jockey himself plays down the importance of previous experience on a horse.
“She’s pretty straightforward. When you’ve got a lot of experience, and I’ve had thousands of rides at this stage, it’s very rare you ride a horse in a race and get off saying ‘if I’d known that more, I’d have done better.’
“It does happen. But usually if you’ve got a lot of experience you figure it out very quick. The better ones can be easier as well, and she travels, she jumps and is just very good,” he said.
Coleman describes it as “an honour” to ride for McManus. During a couple of seasons riding for Jonjo O’Neill he established the link. It promises to pay off in spades with Epatante.
Demand for Coleman’s services are reflected in his other championship race engagements next week.
Put The Kettle On takes on the hotpot Chacun Pour Soi - who has never run at Cheltenham before - with her flawless three from three track record, including last season’s Arkle.
Henry De Bromhead’s mare has over eight lengths to make up on the favourite from Christmas at Leopardstown but is reunited with Coleman this time.
“An Arkle winner in the Champion Chase is a very good stat in her favour. So is how she’s unbeaten on the old course at Cheltenham.
“Chacun Pour Soi looks a monster, don’t get me wrong. But she’s gone under the radar every run she’s had.
“She was an outsider the day she won the Arkle trial. She was sixth or seventh favourite when she won the Arkle. She wasn’t particularly fancied when she won the Shloer (Chase) either.
“Every time she’s run she’s always been overlooked and that will be the case again. This will be by far her biggest test. But she steps up every time we ask her,” the jockey said.
As mares, both Epatante and Put The Kettle On receive a 7lb sex allowance from their male opposition.
Debate about whether or not that is too onerous a task against quality horses in elite races is constantly rumbling. Coleman has it in his favour now but admits it’s not a simple matter.
“It’s a hard question and I have thought about it. It came up last year when Epatante won the Champion Hurdle and Put The Kettle won the Arkle. So I was indirectly involved in that respect in that it worked for me.
“You have to give horses the best chance of winning. Epatante and Honeysuckle are exceptional, two of the best mares we’ve seen in a long time.
“If you take the 7lbs allowance away just for them, an awful lot of other mares are going to be affected. If you take it away from those two what are you doing to all those mares who really do need that allowance to be competitive? You’re penalising them.
“It’s a deep question because it’s about more than two mares and one race. It goes across the board,” he argued.
There is no argument though about Paisley Park’s place in his jockey’s affections. His flop in last year’s Stayers was explained by an irregular heartbeat suddenly presenting itself.
In two runs this season though there has been no reoccurrence, including in a Long Walk Hurdle success that Coleman believes indicates he may even be getting better.
“A few things back it up. His homework and his schooling is better than it’s ever been. So you’re naturally thinking at home this fella is in a really good place.
“Then he goes and beats a horse of Thyne Again’s ability (in the Long Walk.) Two years ago he won the same race and beat West Approach. So the form is better basically.
“It (irregular heartbeat) came up out of nowhere. It’s hasn’t been an issue since and hopefully it won’t be again. After last year though you’re always a little dubious about these things.” he said.
As someone towards the vanguard of the home team next week, the Irishman is under no illusions about the task they face against the visitors who are widely expected to dominate.
“The strength in depth is in Ireland. That’s the way it is. The best horses are there. It’s as simple as that. Going through the races Willie Mullins has the favourite in a lot of them. But there will be surprises.
“Don’t forget there are a lot of great horses over here going for the championship races,” argues Coleman.
And he’s on plenty of them.