Cheltenham: Six Irish winners a salve to Ruby’s unlucky break
Michael O’Leary walking on air after Samcro delivers on his promise on Ladies’ Day
Michael O’Leary, Gordon Elliott and Jack Kennedy with Samcro celebrate after winning the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham on Wednesday. Photograph: Michael Steele/Getty Images
Michael O’Leary is not a man who would appear to shy away from a bit of hype and razzmatazz, given some of the publicity stunts he has pulled with Ryanair over the years.
When it comes to his horses – and one in particular – the airline’s chief executive seems to prefer a far more conservative approach.
Following a wretched sequence of luck as an owner on the opening afternoon of the Cheltenham Festival – with a sequence of thirds and fourths, and losing one of his fleet, Mossback, from a fatal injury – the nerves would have been jangling by the start of day two, and he admitted colourfully to have been “sh**ting bricks all day long”.
If that was not enough, the first runner he was relying upon to get him on the board on Wednesday was Samcro in the Neptune Investment Novices’ Hurdle, a horse who had been anointed as the sport’s “next big thing” and a future Cheltenham Gold Cup winner for some months as well as holding the status of banker of Irish bankers during this week.
The momentum and social media-driven hysteria had risen as the exciting prospect brushed every rival aside in compiling an unbeaten streak of seven, with O’Leary having to intervene at one point during the winter with the statement: “If he turns out to be a reasonably good chaser in time, great, but he’s not the next coming of Jesus Christ.”
Samcro does not exactly resemble the second coming, although he stands out among his fellow thoroughbreds. The chestnut six-year-old swaggered around the paddock like a prize-fighter, followed everywhere by the television cameras, holding his head low and seemingly concentrating on his objective.
On the track, he is a nimble mover, and O’Leary and all of those who backed him into the skinny odds of 8-11 would never have really been worried.
“I don’t generally like redheads but I’ll make an exception for this one,” O’Leary said.
“I’ve never had a horse with this much bloody hype. At least he has won here now. It wasn’t a Grade Three around Naas or Navan. I think bookmakers assist this to encourage people into the ante-post markets.
“Everyone is feeling the pressure, from the trainers, stable staff, jockeys and even the owners. At least we can relax a bit now.”
There will be plenty of costly purchases among O’Leary’s huge string of National Hunt horses, point-to-pointers and breeding projects run under the Gigginstown House Stud banner.
He will not have often paid more than for Samcro, who changed hands for £335,000 at a Goffs sale at the Aintree Grand National meeting two years ago, having won on his debut in a point at Monksgrange near Enniscorthy in Co Wexford.
“This is why we pay stupid amounts of money for horses,” he said. “I paid far too much money for him but he has done everything Gordon [Elliott, trainer] has asked him to. The problem now is that everyone wants to plan ahead instead of just enjoying this amazing thrill.”
Green tweed jacket
While O’Leary would not be known for blending in with the crowd, he credited a move to the most traditional of festival outfits with his belated return to the winner’s enclosure. The green tweed jacket he had sported for the occasion – an otherwise unremarkable number much like those worn by many on the racecourse – appears to have superstitious powers.
“It’s the jacket I wore when Don Cossack won the Gold Cup and when Rule The World won the Grand National,” he explained.
“After yesterday [Tuesday] I changed. My wife said, ‘you’re not wearing that filthy jacket again’ but I had to.”
Samcro was also to open an almost unstoppable flow of Irish winners, with six out of the seven races. Another for O’Leary was not long in coming as Tiger Roll, a diminutive character he described as “a rat of a thing with a heart of a lion” claimed the festival’s cross-country race.
And there were tears from Philip Reynolds, son of the late taoiseach Albert, whose Presenting Percy is a step or two further up the ladder to a future Gold Cup than Samcro after a mighty performance in the RSA Chase. “I’m in bits, I apologise,” said Reynolds, who is usually as eloquent as O’Leary in the debriefs.