The cross-channel travel ban means Henry de Bromhead’s second attempt to win the King George VI Chase on St Stephen’s Day has had to be abandoned.
However, if there’s one upside to Monalee staying at home rather than crossing to Kempton over Christmas it is that disappointment has come in good time.
If everyone’ s got their nightmare Christmas story De Bromhead’s is an oldie but still a goldie.
Ten years ago he aimed to win the King George with Sizing Europe. The horse was in wonderful form. His trainer wasn’t.
“I was so sick, honestly the worst flu I ever had. But the weather got so bad we thought it wasn’t going to go ahead and we wouldn’t even have to go. But they said in Kempton it would, and even if it was cancelled it would be on the next day.
“So we ended up travelling over on Christmas Eve. I went on the lorry with him. Rosemary [Connors] who used to ride Sizing Europe went too.
“Rosemary did all the hard work. I think I just slept. It was pretty awful,” De Bromhead recalls.
Christmas indulgence is rarely a consideration for racing’s workforce ahead of the busiest period of the winter. Day to day duty of care continues no matter what the occasion, and not just at the track.
While her husband headed for the boat, Heather de Bromhead, seven months pregnant, and juggling twins aged just two, minded the fort.
And to top it all, having spent Christmas Day away from home, overnight temperatures dropped to minus seven, leaving Kempton frozen. Racing got called off. There was nothing for it but to travel back. By the time they got back De Bromhead felt like cancelling more than Christmas.
“I left my two-year-old twins and pregnant wife – and they haven’t left me forget it!” he says.
A decade later, in a context of coronavirus and restrictions that have made getting home at all a nightmare, such memories seem almost straightforward. It’s almost enough to inspire nostalgia for simple snow.
De Bromhead had long decided to spare himself the trip this time. Covid-19 restrictions were bad enough anyway prior to this week’s escalation. Closer to home there were always going to be a lot of other important balls to juggle at Leopardstown and Limerick over four days.
On the Christmas menu is a test of his rising star Minella Indo’s Gold Cup claims in Monday’s Savills Chase, while Aspire Tower’s Champion Hurdle credentials go on the line a day later. Course specialist Notebook is gearing up for mouth-watering Grade One clash with Chacun Pour Soi on Sunday.
Even with his unbeaten star mare Honeysuckle wrapped up at home, the scale of De Bromhead’s Christmas ambitions will probably mean more than a dozen runners a day, ammunition of a scale that underlines his status as one of the jump game’s most powerful figures.
Along with Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott, he is the third leg of a dominant training triumvirate in Ireland.
Already this season his prizemoney haul of almost €1 million is nearly double that of his nearest pursuer in the trainer’s championship, Joseph O’Brien. Recent Christmas evidence suggests that gap is only likely to widen over the coming days.
De Bromhead’s half a dozen winners across last Christmas included a lucrative big-race St Stephen’s Day double for Notebook and Aspire Tower. In 2018 there were five winners over the four days at Leopardstown, as well as four others victories between Limerick and Down Royal.
Over one of the most competitive periods of the year – a time that provides some of the first meaningful clashes of the season – the man with the distinctive surname knows how to time his run.
This unique Christmas action though takes place behind closed doors and the absence of people will be keenly felt, although some things rarely change.
“It’s still the time of year when things are heating up – although I find nowadays you’re tested every day you go out,” De Bromhead considers. “It’s so competitive in Ireland that it’s pretty hot all year round!”
A happier holiday anniversary is the almost 20 years since he saddled a first winner with his first runner, Fidalus, at his local track in Tramore on New Year’s Day of 2000.
From that low-key beginning he now boasts a 100-strong string where the emphasis is on very much on quality. Duking it out with Mullins and Elliott for the trainer’s championship is not a priority.
“They are very hard men to overtake. They have huge operations and I’m happy where I am.
“Numerically I’m really happy. I’ve a young family and I enjoy spending time with them so I definitely don’t want to get bigger numbers-wise. The ambition would be to try and raise the quality even more,” he says.
That emphasis has helped jockey Rachael Blackmore become a major Grade One force in recent seasons, propelling her to become one of the sport's most high-profile figures.
The exploits of such a pioneering figure inevitably grabs attention, something her low-key ally probably appreciates. The two decades since Fidalus helped him quickly learn how racing’s fortunes and fashions can fluctuate.
In 2016 Sizing Europe's owners, Alan and Ann Potts, removed their string of horses. Past performances proved to be no guarantee. Among those that left was Sizing John. The following year the horse De Bromhead sourced landed the Cheltenham Gold Cup for Jessica Harrington.
If Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown Stud team quickly filled the breach in terms of numbers, then the Ryanair boss rocked the racing world by announcing his intention to wind down his racing interests. Despite everything though De Bromhead’s star has continued to rise.
“We’ve had our ups and downs. You can never rest on your laurels. There were times when it could have gone either way. I would certainly never take it for granted how fortunate we are with the horses we have,” he says.
For a brief moment in the Gold Cup last March, Monalee looked like securing the sport’s ultimate glory. If he ultimately faded to fourth he is still squarely in the ‘Blue Riband’ picture. However, he doesn’t appear to be De Bromhead’s main contender for Gold Cup glory this season.
Like Monalee, Minella Indo is owned by the high-profile businessman Barry Maloney. He has only the reigning champion Al Boum Photo ahead of him in the Gold Cup betting.
The rising star was a leading novice last season and on the back of two easy warm-up victories this term is set to face his first major test against senior opposition on Monday.
“He was beaten in the RSA last year when he’d gone to Cheltenham on the back of two runs over fences which is why we said we’d do more on the run-up to Christmas and get more experience. He’s very exciting for us,” says the trainer whose other Savills entries include Monalee and A Plus Tard.
Aspire Tower is another championship contender although is moving relatively under the radar in comparison. However, he can boast perhaps the outstanding piece of hurdling form in Ireland this season.
Last year’s Triumph Hurdle runner-up was much too good for Abracadabras at Down Royal in October and the latter beat the highly-touted Saint Roi in the Morgiana.
All three could clash in Tuesday’s Matheson Hurdle, although Aspire Tower also holds an alternative entry at Limerick on the same day.
“The fact he is still only four is against him but he’s a big, scopey horse and what he’s achieved already is pretty good.
“He showed class when he won in Leopardstown last Christmas. We never saw that in the Triumph. He never showed up for whatever reason. Maybe that was because he’d fallen in February [at the Dublin Racing Festival].
“But it was wonderful to see that class again in the north last time,” De Bromhead says.
Notebook too bounced back to winning ways this season with a smooth win at Naas. Given two Grade One victories already around Leopardstown last season he looks one of a formidable Leopardstown team for his trainer.
It underlines how relative disappointment at missing out on the King George should be. The racing action at home may be diluted by circumstances during this singular holiday period. But De Bromhead knows there are worse ways to spend Christmas.