McManus odds on to depose O’Leary as top owner at Cheltenham
Champion Hurdle hat-trick seeking Buveur D’Air one of seven McManus-owned favourites
Apples’s Jade in distinctive Gigginstown maroon livery is likely to lead another formidable squad into action at Cheltenham. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
A year ago Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary enjoyed his most successful ever Cheltenham but even his own Gigginstown Stud team suspect bookmakers are right to make JP McManus favourite to be leading owner this time.
O’Leary won the inaugural Leading Owner award at the National Hunt festival in 2017 with four winners. Last year it was no contest as he racked up seven victories in all. It brought the his total Cheltenham haul to 26.
When this season’s festival kicks off in just over a fortnight, Apple’s Jade is likely to lead another formidable Gigginstown Stud squad into action. But it is O’Leary’s s great rival, McManus, who is as short as 2/5 favourite with some firms to be crowned top owner.
Buveur D’Air is seeking a Champion Hurdle hat-trick and is one of seven McManus-owned horses at the top of ante-post betting lists for their respective races. They include the hot Triumph Hurdle favourite Sir Erec and the strength in depth of the McManus team remains formidable despite the Arkle favourite Le Richebourg ruled out of the rest of the season on Monday due to a setback.
In contrast O’Leary’s only clear favourite this time is Grand National hero Tiger Roll who will defends his cross-country title.
The hugely popular little horse was one of O’Leary’s magnificent seven in 2018, a feat unlikely to be repeated according to the Gigginstown spokesman, Eddie O’Leary.
“The balls fell right last year which means they probably won’t this time. That will not be done again,” he said on Monday. “To get one winner at Cheltenham is fantastic. But we’re pessimists at heart and it’s still a long, long two weeks to Cheltenham. We’ve seen that with Le Richebourg.”
Last year’s Gigginstown haul indicated once again how it has come to underpin the overall Irish challenge at the festival; 2013 was the last time O’Leary’s famous maroon colours didn’t have a winner there.
A year later he had four winners on the final day. That included Tiger Roll’s Triumph Hurdle victory and his subsequent career rejuvenation has surprised even those closest to him.
“What a wonderful, wonderful horse. He keeps surprising us, every day. What happened last week (Tiger Roll’s Boyne Hurdle success) was unbelievable. He was only half fit. Keith Donoghue’s instructions were to tip around, mind him and give him no more than one tip of the stick.
“The reason he hadn’t run over hurdles for 2½ years – and people forget this – is that he’d actually stopped racing. He’d given up the ghost. We were going to sell him. It was over,” added Eddie O’Leary.
“A lot of credit goes to Keith who went out hunting on him and got him back. Then he went to the cross-country and started loving life again. People slag off cross-country races. But it is the cross-country that has got Tiger Roll from an also ran into a Grand National winner. The love of the discipline has got him back to being a racehorse. That’s why we were slow to put him in a hurdle, in case he might sulk again,” he said.
O’Leary declared he has no fears about unseasonably quick ground conditions that have dominated so much of the winter action occurring at Cheltenham. Earlier this month he was critical of Leopardstown’s failure to water the track ahead of the Dublin Racing Festival.
“At Cheltenham they will call it good to soft on the first day but it will really be soft to heavy. They’ll sluice water on it and it can dry up as the week goes on. And I absolutely agree with that. They have to do it from a welfare point of view,” he said.
“I was a little bit annoyed when Leopardstown never even considered watering. It’s meant to be the main Cheltenham trials and it’s great racing. This has been an exceptional year and I hope it doesn’t happen again, otherwise there’s no winter game,” he added.
War Of Attrition was Gigginstown’s first Cheltenham festival winner in the 2006 Gold Cup. A decade later Don Cossack also won it. Road To Respect and the mare Shattered Love are O’Leary’s two likely blue riband representatives this time.
Shattered Love was another 2018 festival winner in the JLT and Eddie O’Leary added: “It’s fantastic she gets the 7lbs mares allowance and we’ve always rated her highly. Do we think she’ll win? No. But we think she’s good enough to run well in a Gold Cup.”