Racing ‘minnows’ aim to spike big guns in Paddy Power Chase
Black Scorpion and Snugsborough Benny among contenders for lucrative handicap
Even a Classic-winning trainer on the flat like Adrian Keatley can qualify for minnow status with his hope, Drumconnor Lad. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Thursday’s €200,000 Paddy Power Chase is the richest pot of Leopardstown’s holiday programme and a potentially lucrative day in the big race sun for racing’s minnows.
It is after all one of the most coveted handicaps on the racing programme and the whole theory of handicaps is they are designed to try and even things out by providing a level playing field.
In practice, recent years have seen Ireland’s biggest handicap steeplechases dominated by the sport’s major operations.
Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary’s massive Gigginstown Stud operation in particular has extended its dominance of top pattern events to the most valuable handicaps. A policy of running large teams of horses has paid off repeatedly.
Clarcam’s shock Galway Plate victory was Gigginstown’s fourth in five years in the big summer prize.
General Principle’s Irish National at Easter was another surprise outcome and a third win in the race for Gigginstown in four years. Last month Tout Est Permis gave O’Leary another Troytown at Navan.
In October his great rival JP McManus chipped in with a Munster National victory at Limerick through Spider Web.
The legendary owner will target a seventh success in all in the Paddy Power where his famous green colours are set to be carried by ten of the 28 runners. Two of the three reserves are also McManus’s.
Gigginstown’s maroon silks are on five horses. Champion trainer Willie Mullins and his great rival Gordon Elliott are represented by half a dozen each. Taking on the most powerful operations in the game still represents a major challenge for other contenders.
Eric McNamara is one of those prepared to take up that challenge though and in Black Scorpion has a realistic shot at another top handicap.
Since taking out a licence in 1984, the trainer based near Rathkeale in Co Limerick has proven his credentials at targeting such prizes.
Ponmeoath landed back to back Kerry Nationals in 2007 and 2008 while Faltering Fullback won the same race in 2012.
McNamara has also tasted top-flight success with Strangely Brown in France in 2005 and despite the impact of the recession, not to mention he concentration of resources in fewer hands, continues to produce winners.
Black Scorpion started favourite for Spider Web’s Munster National and finished third for his owners, the ‘Don’t Go There Syndicate’. They represent the opposite end of the ownership spectrum.
“He’s owned by Patsy Davern from Bruff and a couple of his friends. It’s a family thing for them,” McNamara explained on Wednesday before putting the significance of a potential Paddy Power victory into context for his own fortunes.
“It would be a huge boost. You’re taking on the powers-that-be with six, seven, eight or nine runners in races. We’re lucky to have just the one and we’re happy to have such a good one.
“You’re hoping a race like this can put you in the shop window and maybe get a couple of more horses like this. That’s why we’re going to run. That’s why we’re going to try and beat them,” he added.
Another comparative ‘minnow’ in the Day Two festival feature is Co Laois-based Liam Cusack whose Snugsborough Benny could be another major contender if repeating Galway form from the summer.
The power of the jump game’s top echelons means even a Classic-winning trainer on the flat like Adrian Keatley can qualify for minnow status with his hope, Drumconnor Lad.
Some quarters argue that massed teams from racing’s top owners go against National Hunt racing’s supposedly more egalitarian spirit. It has even prompted suggestions that the number of runners from an individual owner should be restricted. It’s not something McNamara goes along with.
“I don’t think you can do it. If they have these horses they’re entitled to run them,” he argues. “You’d not like to see them run horses with no chance. But I definitely wouldn’t be for restricting them.”
It could prove unwise too for punters to restrict their horizon to big guns such as McManus’s long-time hope De Name Escapes Me.
Black Scorpion is no back number given quick going, a fast pace and a valuable 7lb claim. Nor is Snugsborough Benny.
Most big race ammunition might be in limited hands. But this year has repeatedly shown how there is widespread ability among Irish trainers to fire accurately if given the bullets.