It's been 10 years since Tom Taaffe trained Cane Brake to win the Paddy Power Chase. In 2006 the race was worth the same prize money as it is now. It's still the most valuable race of the Christmas programme. This time Taaffe has two chances to win. So far, so same old: but a lot has changed.
A decade ago, big race wins had become second-nature to Taaffe – and not just handicaps either.
The previous Christmas, Kicking King had secured the second of his back-to-back King George VI Chase successes. In between had come that seismic Cheltenham Gold Cup victory, resonating with distant echoes of Taaffe's father, and Arkle, and more contemporary dashes of Celtic Tiger swagger.
When Taaffe accepted the Gold Cup from Princess Anne and planted a good-natured smacker on the royal cheek he had the look of a man on top of the racing world.
Delivering a horse to win when it matters most can do that and only the most po-faced could have tut-tutted the flourish with which royal protocol was breached.
That big-race touch hasn’t gone away and it’s why the two JP McManus owned horses he saddles for this Paddy Power – Rogue Trader and People’s Park – will be forensically examined by punters and bookmakers alike. What is different is how much victory will matter.
Any idea of the good times not rolling on must have seemed ridiculous back in 2006. But the economic crash affected a lot of people and the man who had followed up a successful career as jockey with even greater success as a trainer was no exception.
He had always preferred quality over quantity, but there was a notable drain on both after Finger on the Pulse’s win in the 2010 Galway Plate. There were just two other winners that season. Things picked up a little, with the high class Argocat proving a good advertisement. However they dipped again last season with Taaffe saddling just two winners in all.
The fallout from the crash and the tender mercies of banks demanded more attention than the winner’s enclosure, even for a Gold Cup winner.
Racing is notoriously fickle. A decade ago, Gordon Elliott had just got a licence and Willie Mullins wasn't even champion trainer. Now their dominance is overwhelming. But Taaffe believes his good times are about to roll again.
This season he has already saddled five winners from the 20 horses he has in training, including a Winter Festival double at Fairyhouse at the start of this month. What has never wavered is Taaffe’s belief that, given the material, he’s able to do the job.
“It’s been a rough passage, no different to a lot of people,” he says. “There were a lot of balls in the air and we were in the doldrums completely there for a while. The recession hit us hard with numbers. But we’ve got a bit of wind back in our sails again. I’m happy we’re in a good place again.”
Should People’s Park or Rogue Trader win, it will a very public and very lucrative confirmation of that return to big-race glory. Even if they don’t, Taaffe’s faith in his capacity to judge a horse means it’s likely to be just a temporary setback, because some things don’t change.
“Nobody ever writes this, but the times of races now haven’t changed, bar a couple of seconds, in the last 60 years,” Taaffe says. “Horses haven’t got quicker, no matter all the waffle that goes on.
“What is harder now is people getting their hands on ‘made’ horses. At the ‘boutique’ sales there are lots of them, winners, making flash money. And it’s easy to buy them if you can afford them.
“But there’s another way: if you have a good eye for a horse, buy foals and yearlings, have the time and patience to wait, build it up slowly and after a while there’s a conveyer belt of young horses coming through. That’s proper horsemanship, and that’s never changed.”
More immediately, there is a Paddy Power to be won and if the three-mile trip is a question mark for People’s Park, then the nature of the race could determine Rogue Trader’s chance.
“He won nicely at Punchestown, on the outside, enjoying a solo, but there’s no light in a Paddy Power with 28 runners. It’s a bit of a lottery really,” the trainer says.
That hasn’t changed either.