De Bromhead in relaxed mood as he prepares to return to scene of historic triumph

Last year’s phenomenal success was surely a once-off – but stable has shown signs of returning to form in time for Cheltenham

The odds on lightening actually striking twice are supposed to be a million to one. Bookmakers are going to be much more miserly about Henry De Bromhead's chances of doing something similar at Cheltenham next week.

So much of last year's festival revolved around those pioneering exploits of Rachael Blackmore that it got comparatively overlooked how the trainer with the distinctive Norman name rewrote the history books.

No one, no O’Brien, Dreaper or Mullins, had ever before in a single week saddled all three winners of Cheltenham’s ‘Triple Crown’ feature races.

But the peerless Honeysuckle’s Champion Hurdle victory teed up Put The Kettle On in the Champion Chase before Minella Indo led home his stable companion A Plus Tard in the Gold Cup.


Throw in three other winners, including the outstanding novice, Bob Olinger, and perhaps the only way the week could have been improved upon is if ‘Indo’ and ‘APT’ had somehow dead-heated in steeplechasing’s ‘Blue Riband’.

That De Bromhead completed a ‘Grand Slam’ of jump racing’s greatest races with another one-two in the Grand National just a few weeks later underlined just how surreal it felt for a single individual to enjoy such an unprecedented streak of big-race glory.

So, on the verge of racing’s biggest week of the year, it begs the question as to how to follow that up;how likely it is to even dare to dream about getting close again? Managing as near to perfection as makes little difference is hard enough once; twice surely can’t be on.

Except that Honeysuckle, now unbeaten in 14 races, is a heavy odds-on favourite to defend her championship and A Plus Tard is favourite to get his Gold Cup revenge.

Minella Indo’s record of spring transformation when it matters most keeps him to the forefront of the Gold Cup market too while Put The Kettle On has beaten the odds so often around Cheltenham that only the dim will dismiss as impossible her chance of a Champion Chase repeat.

On top of which, Bob Olinger is moseying towards the most eagerly awaited gunfight of the whole week when Thursday’s opening Turners Chase will see whether he or compatriot Galopin Des Champs is quicker on the festival draw.

Crucially, all of them will travel to the Cotswolds from a stable giving unmistakable signals of having returned to form at just the right time.

Full cylinders

It’s been a close-run thing. Over Christmas a strike rate normally approaching 20 per cent dipped alarmingly. When another of next week’s Grade One hopes, Journey With Me, won his maiden De Bromhead joked he must be good to buck the trend.

There were winners. Honeysuckle landed the Irish Champion Hurdle at the Dublin Racing Festival. But a New Year strike rate of just five per cent for one of the biggest yards in the country was statistical evidence of something being askew.

Horses that look fine, with nothing showing up in their tests, but still underperforming on the track is the stuff of nightmares at racing’s coalface. Knowing there’s a problem but being unable to identify it is a quandary with no time-limit. But in the last couple of weeks whatever malaise it was appears to have eased as mysteriously as it came.

“We haven’t found anything. We did all our checks and everything seemed good. Sometimes things just don’t go your way,” De Bromhead said.

“I would have called it more frustrating than anything. But then I wouldn’t like to stand up and argue that we were on full cylinders either. Nothing has come to light. Normally we’d go quiet after Christmas anyway and we still managed to win an Irish Champion Hurdle and a few other races as well.

“But it’s good to see the horses picking up – it’s amazing what a couple of winners can do!” he added.

It’s certainly reassuring for those putting their faith in stables on a roll but not enough for the man in charge of that stable to believe lightening really can strike twice. Working with enigmatic creatures such as thoroughbreds involves acceptance of non-scientific factors like the bounce of the ball.

It bounced perfectly last year but Cheltenham is no straightforward wicket.

It’s a decade since De Bromhead’s first headline act, Sizing Europe, looked set to successfully defend his Champion Chase ticket until forced to dramatically swerve around a final fence that had been dolled off in a haphazard manner more akin to the point to point than racing’s ‘Olympics’.

It is half a decade since being forced to endure watching Sizing John, a horse he'd sourced and trained until just months before, land the Gold Cup for Jessica Harrington.

Fine line

“It’s such a fine line. You need everything to go right for you. We were fortunate last year but when it goes against you it can be pretty brutal,” he said.

“But it’s part of it. These things seem to happen in sport no matter what you’re involved in. Expect the unexpected and hopefully it will swing your way at some point.

“Me ranting and raving wasn’t going to win us the race [2011 Champion Chase] and that’s just the way it fell on the day. We’ve had plenty of things fall our way as well,” De Bromhead added.

The 2021 festival was proof positive of that, part of an unprecedented level of Irish domination at the festival that matters most. It is far from impossible that last year’s tally of 23 winners may be equaled or even surpassed next week such is the depth of quality currently in Ireland.

The pall on the run in to Cheltenham 2022 isn’t Covid-19 but war in Europe. Racing has its own turmoil too arising from Jim Bolger’s claims last year about drugs in Irish racing, and subsequent reports relating to the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board’s treatment of suspended trainer, Stephen Mahon.

De Bromhead has watched the game of claim and counter-claim and been left bemused. He admits he may be naïve but doesn’t agree with Bolger’s claims about a lack of a level playing field when it comes to drugs.

“I find it very hard to believe that there is a big problem of doping in Irish racing. With the way we’re governed, the way the horses are tested, the checking around the yards, I would find it extremely hard to believe that there is.

“If someone has proof that there is, I believe they should come forward, and if someone is saying there is doping in racing they should come forward to the authorities and give them all the information they have. That would be my view,” he said.

“We are winning races in every jurisdiction around the world. The horses are tested in all these jurisdictions and they’re coming up negative.

“However much you want to question the IHRB testing, which I think is extremely good and very well policed, the fact we’re winning races all over the world, surely that must have some credibility,” he added.

His immediate priority though is to align the stable’s timely resurgence in form with the four days that determine so much of the racing year.

Speculation about the festival extending to five days at some point won’t dilute the overarching hold Cheltenham has in the popular imagination, perhaps even detrimentally in relation to the rest of the season.

A monster

“It has become a bit of a monster. But it is an incredible four days. It introduces a lot of people to the game which I think is brilliant.

“To come out with the cliché, it is our Olympics. Everyone wants to win. But I’m not sure if you miss out one year it defines your season. You’ll be forgiven – says he hopefully! – if you do miss a year. It’ll be disappointing but you do have to look at your overall season,” reasons De Bromhead.

It’s a perspective perhaps helped by approaching the week with momentum restored. Last year’s exploits though are now irrelevant.

“We’re back to normal, still trying to do the job as always, trying to get them there as well as we can, get one winner and happy days, and everything after that really is a bonus,” he said.

Henry de Bromhead on his leading prospects at Cheltenham

Honeysuckle – "She's incredible and has such a will to win. I'm sure something will beat her one day but at the moment we're delighted with her. It would be unbelievable stuff if she could win again – there's not many that can win two Champion Hurdles."

Minella Indo – "He definitely seems to improve a hell of a lot in the spring. I'd often wondered when I heard people talk about spring horses but he certainly would make you think. You'd be defending his form going to Cheltenham but then he comes out and does what he does."

A Plus Tard – "I don't think stamina is an issue with him at all. Take 'Indo' out of it last year and everyone would have said what an impressive winner he was, beating a dual-Gold Cup winner by four lengths. He was really impressive at Haydock and I thought he ran really well at Leopardstown."

Bob Olinger – "We've focused on his jumping a little more than most and feel he's repaying us now. He probably did take more work than normal but he's really got it. It was just him getting his confidence. Rachael has been brilliant on him. She's done a lot of work on him."

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

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