Culloty strikes again at Cheltenham

Lord Windermere is 25/1 for 2014 Gold Cup

Jim Culloty hasn't taken a straight-forward road to Cheltenham festival success as a trainer but Lord Windermere made it all worthwhile with a thrilling RSA Chase success at Cheltenham yesterday.

Along with a double for Willie Mullins courtesy of Back In Focus and Briar Hill, and a 25/1 victory for Flaxen Flare in the Fred Winter, it meant another excellent day for those wearing their "Ireland " caps, although an expensive defeat for the Neptune hotpot Pont Alexandre will have cooled a lot of the patriotic ardour.

Ultimately it means that at the halfway stage of the festival, the Irish tally stands at seven, with enough ammunition in store both today and tomorrow to get record calculators warming up.

All of which won't matter to Culloty, the man with a supreme steeplechase pedigree who now looks to have a credible Gold Cup contender for 2014 in his small stable.


That that stable is in Churchtown, the heart of north Cork where steeplechasing began, and where a certain Vincent O’Brien grew up, only adds to the National Hunt pedigree of a man who will forever be associated with Best Mate, the horse he rode to a hat-trick of Gold Cups between 2002 and 2004.

Quickly dismissed
After retiring from the saddle, any ideas that training back in Ireland would be a piece-of-cake for such a high-profile ex-jockey were quickly dismissed. But the flowering talent of Lord Windermere, and the patience of his owner Dr Ronan Lambe, has helped keep the Culloty show on the road.

"Jim struggled a bit to begin with but that's my first winner here and he's been doing fantastic recently with a small string," said Lambe whose Ascot Gold Cup winner Rite Of Passage famously failed to hit the bullseye here.

It was far from straight-forward for Lord Windermere too yesterday as Davy Russell had to negotiate a clear run on the turn-in, on the back of tripping on a path just beforehand. But the horse powered up the hill after Boston Bob's exit at the last to beat Lyreen Legend in an Irish one-two.

“It took me a while to get the hang of training, but Dr Lambe has been incredibly loyal,” said Culloty who praised Russell’s nerve on what was his first racecourse spin on the winner.

After losing the ride, Lord Windermere's former jockey Tom Doyle retired a couple of weeks ago but Culloty said: "Tom deserves a lot of the credit, he's taught him well and the first time he rode him he said to me 'this is the one you've been waiting for'.

"You get nervous 30 minutes before going out to ride in a Gold Cup, but I have been nervous for the last six months with this lad. When I work my way down to him on a morning I just pray that he is okay."

Bookmaker reaction
Bookmaker reaction was to make Lord Windermere a 25/1 shot for next year's Gold Cup and his trainer said: "I'll treat him like a Gold Cup horse until he tells me he isn't one."

Willie Mullins brought his tally for the week to five already, and that was without the hugely-touted Pont Alexandre who could only plug to be a one-paced third behind The New One in the Neptune.

“Disappointed,” conceded Mullins, which must have been quite a comedown having watched his son Patrick land a thrilling four-mile National Hunt Chase success on the favourite Back In Focus in the race before.

Having twice won the race himself during his own riding days, Mullins Snr was noticeably emotional at his son’s success, and also relieved.

“Patrick wanted to ride him prominently but the horse got quite wound up in the parade ring and I told him to be more patient,” he said. “As it was Nina (Carberry) rode the race Patrick wanted to (on the runner-up Tofino Bay) and I was afraid I’d cost him the win. I know how much it means to him.”

Mullins Jnr looked to be on the stable number one for the Wetherbys Champion Bumper but the difficulty punters have here was underlined by how surprised even the trainer was with the identity of his eighth Champion Bumper winner here.

“I originally had four horses for this race and this one was definitely the fourth of the four,” he admitted after Ruby Walsh guided the 25/1 Briar Hill to a seven-length success. “He has never shown me anything like that at home – I nearly kept him for a winners of one. Now he’ll go for the champion bumper at Punchestown!”

Flaxen Flare was another 25/1 skinner for the bookies, sprinting home in the juvenile event to justify his 105,000 Gns purchase price off the flat.

"If he never wins again, it doesn't matter – his job is done," beamed trainer Gordon Elliott. "We put blinkers on because he'd become a bit lairy. And he travelled so well I was afraid Davy (Condon) hit the front too soon."

Alan King saddled a one-two in the Coral Cup but here too it was the outsider of the pair, the 33/1 Medinas, who emerged best. Fiveforthree on his first start for two years was a fine third.

“We’ve not had the greatest season and I’ve had a few blanks at the festival over the years so this gives everyone a massive boost,” King said.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor is the racing correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Tipping Point column