Cheltenham: All eyes turn to ‘quirky’ Flooring Porter in stayers hurdle

Trainer Gavin Cromwell hopeful champion can settle to repeat success in 2022 renewal

It's helpful how the horse likely to be the focus of most attention prior to Thursday's Paddy Power Stayers Hurdle isn't going to be hard to spot.

The reigning stayers champion Flooring Porter will sport a bright red hood in the preliminaries and it’s sure to be closely examined in the minutes up to the off by those seeking reassurance its owner isn’t having a meltdown.

A hood allows a horse’s ears to be covered, cutting down on noise that could distract or upset a nervous thoroughbred.

Flooring Porter completed a fairy-tale rise from obscurity to Cheltenham champion a year ago when the festival action was behind closed doors. This time he will be the focus of up to 70,000 pairs of eyes and no one has ever confused the clamour of Cheltenham for monastic silence.

So Gavin Cromwell is reaching for every kind of aid to prevent his stable star from losing his race before it begins.

By popular repute, Flooring Porter possesses such a collection of equine neuroses it’s a wonder he doesn’t lose the plot munching hay in his box. He can gallop fast for a prolonged period, jink dramatically sideways, and still manage to win. He doesn’t much like going right-handed and at Punchestown last year gave such a loutish performance prior to a big race that it felt like a result just to get him to jump off.

Even those fond of the horse, resort to words like “quirky” to describe him. Others are less kind. What there’s unanimity on is that this is a top class racehorse when he consents to behave himself.

“Maybe it [quirky] is used a little bit loosely,” says Cromwell who is understandably a major fan. “He isn’t completely straightforward although he is improving all the time. He’s learning on the job all the time. He just has his own ideas. It’s hard to describe – I suppose quirky actually isn’t a bad world to use for him!

“He is very settled in his own environment and in his own routine. But when you take him out of it he does get quite lit up. He’s liable to do strange things. And he can run around a bit.

“He’s never taken off completely out of control. When he jumps off and he’s racing he’s actually quite manageable. When you’re trying to walk or trot he is quite difficult. But once you actually jump off he’s fine.

“He’s totally A1 at home. But if you took him away for a gallop he’s liable to get lit up. Having said all that, he’s an awful lot better than he used to be,” adds the Co Meath trainer.

If a trainer’s job is usually done when they leg up their jockey then that won’t apply with Flooring Porter and the prospect of all that raucous energy on the way to the start. There is also the reality that the opposition knows the score with this horse too.

“It’s definitely a concern. We certainly have to bear it in mind. We’ll help him as best we can. We’ll put the red hood on him. We’ll have somebody at the start if needs be. He didn’t need it last year because the crowds weren’t there.

“He’s also going there with a lot more respect this year. Probably trainers are aware that things have to go right for him. Hopefully he can get off to a good start and let the best horse win,” says Cromwell.

The good news for Flooring Porter fans is his trainer's record of getting it right when it counts. Espoir D'allen's Champion Hurdle success in 2019 is the most notable example. But last year's stayers is up there too. There's a Welsh Grand National too while at the other end of the distance and discipline spectrum was a first Royal Ascot success last year through Quick Suzy in the Queen Mary.

Cromwell, the ex-farrier turned leading trainer, is used to turning his hand to any equine quandary.

Beyond control

Sometimes though events occur that are beyond any trainer’s control. At Christmas, Flooring Porter spent three miles in a fruitless exercise chasing Klassical Dream after the latter’s flying start. Cromwell admits to frustration that a false start wasn’t called but took encouragement from the race.

“It was very frustrating at the time. On the other side of it I was delighted with the performance of the horse. The winner was exceptionally good but under the circumstances Flooring Porter ran a very solid race,” he says.

Solidity isn’t a virtue normally associated with the stayers champion but going with his singular flow has paid off handsomely up to now. Planning after all has its limits, a policy Cromwell embraces.

“I don’t have any massive plan,” he says when asked about dividing his attention between the flat and jumps in future. “It’s really a case of training whatever horse is sent to me and we’ll work at it as we go along. I don’t see any point in setting out a plan like that. I can only train what’s sent to me. It’ll take its own course, really.”

It sounds like an apt attitude to today’s task.