Top point-to-point rider Derek O'Connor will get the opportunity to secure Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup glory next week aboard the JP McManus star Edwulf. The partnership secured a memorable 33-1 success in last month's Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown, which sealed Edwulf's remarkable comeback to action after almost losing his life at last year's Cheltenham festival.
What trainer Joseph O’Brien has described as a “neurological episode” saw the horse collapse after being pulled up by O’Connor on the run-in of the four-mile National Hunt Chase. A lengthy rehabilitative process reached an emotional climax at Leopardstown when Edwulf propelled himself into the reckoning for “Blue Riband” glory back at Cheltenham on Friday week.
McManus’s number one jockey Barry Geraghty has not ridden Edwulf in his last eight races, and the decision has been taken to leave O’Connor on the horse for jump racing’s most coveted prize.
"I'm sure that's the plan. He won on him the last day. and Barry will ride either Minella Rocco or Anibale Fly," McManus's racing manager Frank Berry confirmed on Sunday.
Sam Waley-Cohen was the last amateur rider to win the Gold Cup on Long Run in 2011. That was 30 years after Jim Wilson managed the same feat on board Little Owl. Just two other amateurs have won the race in its history.
In 2015 O’Connor made history by becoming the first jockey to ride 1,000 point-to-point winners in Ireland. He has twice won the four-mile National Hunt Chase at the Cheltenham festival, courtesy of Chicago Grey in 2011 and Minella Rocco in 2016.
Edwulf is as low as 16-1 in some ante-post lists as the McManus team bid to repeat their 2012 Gold Cup victory with Synchronised. He is set to be joined by both last year’s runner up Minella Rocco and possibly by the Tony Martin-trained Anibale Fly. Both fell in the Irish Gold Cup won by Edwulf.
“Anibale Fly was disappointing the last day but Tony seems happy with him again. He’ll do a bit of schooling during the week and then we’ll make a decision. Hopefully he can get back to a bit of form,” said Berry.
McManus’s Grade One winning mare Jer’s Girl is a 10-1 in some lists for the OLBG Hurdle next week, but Berry warned: “She is in the Coral Cup as well. We’ll discuss it during the week with Gavin [Cromwell] and decide what to do.”
A Gold Cup victory for Edwulf would be a contender for the most emotional moment at the festival, but if On The Fringe could win the Foxhunters for a third time in the following race it could be a big contender too.
The veteran 13-year-old star is back in contention for a sixth Cheltenham festival appearance after being all but ruled out earlier this season. Pulled up in a hunters chase at Cork in November, and beaten in a point-to-point the following month, On The Fringe’s remarkable career looked to have finished. Berry, however, isn’t ruling the chance of a potential final festival hurrah.
“I didn’t think he would have much chance of making it but he seems to be back on song again, and if he pleases Enda [Bolger] during the week he’ll be a runner.”
Back to back
On The Fringe first ran in the Foxhunters in 2011 when finishing fourth. He next ran in it in 2014 when finishing third before winning the race back to back in 2015-16. Last year he started a 7-4 favourite to complete the hat-trick, but never landed a blow in fourth behind Pacha Du Polder.
The going at Cheltenham on Sunday was “soft” and good to soft in places on all three tracks. Clerk of the course Simon Claisse predicted rain and milder temperatures in the run-up to next week’s festival.
“It looks as if with this milder weather it’s going to stay unsettled with bits and pieces of rain, which will probably keep the ground where it is.
“Friday-Saturday looks like it could be pretty wet with 19mm or 12mm – half an inch of rain. We may have heavy in places before we start. But let’s remember there have been plenty of years when we’ve been soft the weekend before the festival and ended up good by the Friday.”