Eugene O’Sullivan returns to scene of greatest triumph with proven article
It Came To Pass recorded a stunning 66-1 success in last year’s Foxhunters Chase
Maxine O’Sullivan celebrates It Came to Pass’s victory in the Foxhunters Chase at Cheltenham last year. Photograph: Michael Steele/Getty Images
The face of National Hunt racing has transformed over the last 30 years but there is something familiar about the return of It Came To Pass to Cheltenham next week.
One sure thing is that the Eugene O’Sullivan-trained star won’t be the 66-1 he was when springing a huge shock in last year’s Foxhunters Chase at the festival.
It became one of the feel-good stories of a turbulent week as jockey Maxine O’Sullivan guided the point-to-point stalwart trained by her father, and owned by her mother, Alurie, to victory in the biggest amateur rider’s prize of the season.
It’s 30 years since Lovely Citizen pulled off one of the great tales in Cheltenham history with his own Foxhunters victory in 1991
Such a rare family success on the biggest stage was marked subsequently with the National Hunt Achievement Award at the Horse Racing Ireland awards in December. By then the face of everything had altered due to the global pandemic.
One outcome is that amateur riders aren’t allowed ride at Cheltenham this year. It’s a comparatively tiny impact in the overall context, but understandably keenly felt in the O’Sullivan household in Lombardstown in north Cork.
Rooted in the birthplace of the game itself, and in the point-to-point heartlands upon which much of the sport is based on, the family element to It Came To Pass is underlined too by a notable anniversary.
It’s 30 years since Lovely Citizen pulled off one of the great tales in Cheltenham history with his own Foxhunters victory in 1991.
A horse also trained by O’Sullivan, ridden by his brother William, and owned and bred by their late father Eoin, pulled off a success on the biggest stage of all that even then seemed unlikely. That it should get echoed nearly three decades later represented a hugely popular triumph for the grassroots of the sport.
Events have conspired to deny a perfectly synchronised anniversary. With professionals doing the riding instead, O’Sullivan has secured the services of Richie McLernon for It Came To Pass at a unique behind-closed-doors Cheltenham.
It comes against the backdrop of the point-to-point circuit here being suspended due to government Covid-19 regulations. After over a century even the ‘Fox’ has been dropped from the race title in a nod to changing public sensibilities.
Yet despite everything the O’Sullivans are back on a familiar path with a proven article against opposition that doesn’t look to hold many surprises.
“It’s very hard to get it done twice in two years. Maybe it will be a different kind of race this year with professional jockeys. What difference that will have on the race I don’t know. But just looking at the entries the race does look very similar to last year,” Eugene O’Sullivan considers.
On that occasion It Came To Pass scampered up the hill to beat Willie Mullins’s Billaway by 10 lengths. Now Billaway is 3-1 favourite and It Came To Pass a 10-1 shot. Against the might of the sport’s biggest bandwagon, bookmakers believe O’Sullivan faces another uphill battle.
The points are completely more professional now. Before no-one had gallops. There was no such thing as schooling tracks
That’s nothing new for the 57-year-old Cork trainer. Just being competitive on the point-to-point circuit now is a challenge. The days of any hunters’ chase or point-to-point being a Corinthian day out were starting to vanish even when Lovely Citizen was in his pomp. Now it’s a bygone era.
“The job is totally different. It’s very, very hard to compete. That time, if you had a good hunter, you had a good hunter, he was coming through point to points and he was a real hunter.
“Whereas now the horses are coming back from inside the rails. If we had a hunter like him now he’d be sold as five or six year old because you couldn’t refuse the money you’d be offered. So I’m fierce lucky to have this horse,” O’Sullivan said.
“The points are completely more professional now. Before no-one had gallops. There was no such thing as schooling tracks. You were doing it from base and doing it from raw material.
“The horses going to the point-to-points now, the ones that win, if they were going for a bumper at Leopardstown or Naas, they’d probably win the same day.
“It is the way it is. By no means is it amateur. It’s an industry now and there are more people in it to make money,” he added.
I fancied him an awful lot last year. I’m not a punting man, and you don’t go blowing about your chances at Cheltenham, but I couldn’t believe the price
Family though remains central. His and his brother’s children are heavily involved in the operation. It’s why Maxine’s absence from Cheltenham stings.
“It’s very disappointing for us. It’s not often we get a horse like this. He’ll be 12 next year and whether he’ll be as competitive next year is another day’s work. We could go a lifetime, another 30 years, without a horse like him.
“So to have her not being able to ride, all over a week, because the British amateurs are coming back the following week, is very disappointing. Richie McLernon started with me, he’s a family friend, he’s in Cheltenham, so it makes sense he’ll ride him,” O’Sullivan said.
What remains the same is absolute assurance that It Came To Pass is a substantially greater talent than Lovely Citizen was.
“I fancied him an awful lot last year. I’m not a punting man, and you don’t go blowing about your chances at Cheltenham, but I couldn’t believe the price.
“He’s a spring horse, he loves a cut in the ground, no more, and he blossomed over there last year.
“We planned this year not to run him inside the rails. We planned to run him in a point to point up in Clare where we know there’s always good ground.
“Unfortunately the point to points were called off so went to Thurles. We wanted a run that wouldn’t put him under pressure on the ground. Unfortunately he unseated Maxine at the third last. But he’d have finished fourth or fifth even on that ground and Maxine was really happy,” he added.
Even if It Came To Pass manages to pull off back to back wins however he is unlikely to shake Lovely Citizen’s status around Lombardstown.
“He died when he was about 19 or 20 and is buried in front of the hall door, a legend of a horse for us,” O’Sullivan said. “He took a family point-to-point operation to a family training operation.”