Cheltenham festival preview - Tipp’s Mouse Morris may be one to follow

Mark Hackett looks ahead to the Cheltenham festival from a Tipperary perspective and says to take note of the Mouse Morris charges.

Mark Hackett looks ahead to the Cheltenham festival from a Tipperary perspective and says to take note of the Mouse Morris charges.

It’s the 28th November 1977 and though the sun shines on Camden racecourse in South Carolina it’s bitterly cold.

The eleven remaining runners gallop past the stands during the eighth running of the $100,000 Colonial Cup but further back up the straight one partnership has come unstuck. Down First has been hit from behind after landing over the fourth fence and his twenty-six year old Irish jockey now lays prostrate, his leg mangled.

After a successful spell as an amateur he had turned professional only two years earlier, managed to win consecutive runnings of the Champion Chase at Cheltenham aboard Skymas and landed the plum job of stable jockey to Edward O’Grady, but this injury will sideline him for a year. Intensive physio will enable a return to the saddle but the comeback will be short lived.

As he looks down and sees the sole of his left boot pointing up at him, Michael “Mouse” Morris, though he doesn’t realise it at the time, has reached a watershed – his life as a jockey is all but over, but a new path will lead him to Everardsgrange, outside Fethard, and a career as one of the finest national hunt trainers in Ireland.

In fact, it was only by chance that he stumbled across the yard that he now calls home. Having already established a base at Ballykelly, near Cashel, he drove past Everardsgrange after a day’s hunting and brought his new wife, Shanny, to have a look. They both refer to the “potential” of the property which is a nice way of describing a dilapidated house, overrun with nettles and housing the skeleton of some unknown animal, but at that stage they only planned to renovate the place and sell it on – the best laid plans etc….

The original six stables were added to over the years, surrounding land was acquired from neighbours and while Mouse will never, by choice, have huge numbers in training it is with this relatively small string that South Tipperary’s best chance of success at next week’s Cheltenham festival lie.

Aidan O’Brien seems to have noticed the dearth of regional ammunition aimed at the Cotswolds and has confirmed Shield, set to be ridden by his son Joseph, for Wednesday’s Champion Bumper. A winner at Leopardstown only last Sunday it will be the trainer’s first runner at the meeting since the great Istabraq was pulled up in his attempt for a fourth Champion Hurdle in 2002 but victory seems unlikely. No, we’ll be relying on the man who, in his native Spiddal, they call “Mac An Lord”. To us he’s just Mouse and in the shape of Baily Green, Rule The World, China Rock and First Lieutenant among others, he has assembled a fine squad for next week’s action.

Baily Green, contrary to his trainer’s normal modus operandi, has had a very busy campaign, rattling off seven consecutive wins between May and November. Mouse rarely runs the guts out of his charges but has to be commended for taking advantage of weak races and picking up over €90k prizemoney in the process. The seven year old has run only twice since mid November, however, so fatigue is an invalid excuse if he runs poorly in his chosen of two engagements, Tuesday’s Arkle Chase or the closing race of the meeting the Grand Annual. Realistically he’s running for third in the former as Simonsig and Overturn are superior but there’s very little quality among the other entries.

Rule The World, owned by Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown House Stud, is likely to run in Wednesday’s Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle and while he may have been flattered by the ease of victory in Naas last time out (the two principals cut each other’s throats) there is every chance that he will improve greatly for the better ground he has yet to encounter. It’s a hot renewal this year mind but 11/1 is fair. If the Naas result proves one thing it is that he can pick up off a fast pace and that’s guaranteed in this event.

China Rock is approaching the veteran stage having turned ten in January but is far from a forlorn hope in Thursday’s Ryanair Chase. He has run huge races to the top of the hill in the last two Gold Cups before weakening and while he has a Grade 1 victory over three miles plus at Punchestown, this is his trip.

Under normal circumstances I’d be getting involved at 25/1, and shorter, but there’s a problem – namely his stablemate First Lieutenant. Actually, there is a further issue here in that plans for the latter remain up in the air. He is entered in both the Ryanair and the Gold Cup and we have a repeat of the predicament the same connections encountered in 2006 with War Of Attrition. On that occasion Michael O’Leary bowed to Mouse and the trainer’s decision was vindicated but there is no doubt O’Leary wants to win the race he sponsors and I hope, I think, he will get his way this time. His position is certainly strengthened by having Sir Des Champs for the big one. Only time will tell.

For now, First Lieutenant’s claims for the Ryanair are strong. As alluded to previously, Mouse brings his horses along slowly, not only during their careers but also over the course of a season, and First Lieutenant is the epitome of this approach. A disappointing return at Gowran in October was followed by an improved effort when second in a Grade 1 in Down Royal. But he left those efforts well behind with a brave effort in the Hennessy at Newbury a month later and in the Lexus at Leopardstown over Christmas he was nabbed close home by the late rattle of Tidal Bay. Best going left handed and suited by better ground the current 9/2 is very tempting, especially with the luxury of the Non-Runner, No Bet concession. I’ve been doing this preview for a number of years now and at this point I’d normally rattle off a number of important statistics and trends to remember and apply during the week. They are not the be-all-and-end-all though I’m still an anorak in that regard, and all the data can be found online, but this year I’m going to suggest a few do’s and don’ts instead:

Do respect course and festival form. Cheltenham is an idiosyncratic course – it’s a mile and a half in circumference but it can ride like a tight track as a lot of time is spent on the turn and then there’s the steep undulations and infamous final climb. Not every horse handles it well and flat track bullies tend not to win at Prestbury Park.

Do shop around for prices, both on course and off. This is the most fevered betting week in the national hunt calendar and bookmakers will be scrambling for business. There will be any amount of offers, price enhancements and money back specials in the shops and online (more of that later) and if you happen to be there don’t be so lazy as to take the first price you see.

Similarly, do get the price you are after and if you don’t manage it just walk away. This is a long discussion for another day but if you start taking odds that are shorter than you deem correct you are doomed to failure.

Don’t pay attention to what’s said at any of the preview evenings. The festival is undoubtedly the best week’s racing of the year but a circus has built up around it, and it never ceases to amaze me how the people who infest these nights can talk for so long without actually saying anything at all. They can be an enjoyable occasion, no doubt, and Davy Russell is good value – he thinks the ambulance will finish third in the Champion Chase – but treat them as an opportunity to meet other racing fans for a natter and you’ll get the best out of them. The most informed discussions tend to take place away from the stage.

As I write this piece the annual after-racing, pre Cheltenham gallops are about to take place at Leopardstown. Don’t pay attention to what happened there either. You should have copied me and turned it off. For a start you don’t know how those horses work at home so you can’t make a comparison. Instead, stick your head in a formbook or watch video replays and see how they fare where it really matters – during a race.

Don’t back in every race. I sincerely doubt that you have sound reasons for getting involved financially in every heat and just because the bookmaker prices them all up doesn’t mean you have to bet. The occasion, and a few pints, can do strange things though.

Don’t listen to tips – (except the two listed below!) and if you need this explained you’re beyond redemption.

Finally, do enjoy it. I often wonder what the rest of the world does come the second Tuesday in March, but frankly I really don’t care. If they don’t understand what it’s about then it’s their loss. But we know.

So apart from First Lieutenant there’s a couple of other horses worthy of strong support next week and hopefully I’ll avoid a fate similar to last year – I’m still trying to come to terms with Tanks For That being mugged late on by his stablemate Bellvano in the Grand Annual and if I never again see Paul “Alice” Carberry saunter up the hill with his backside in the air it will be too soon.

But I digress. First up is Rock On Ruby in Tuesday’s Champion Hurdle. It’s not often I advocate using a regular bookmaker over Betfair but Paddy Power have a sensational offer in this race where if the 15/8 favourite, Hurricane Fly, wins they will refund all losing bets. Before it was ever announced I had it between the pair and had sided with the Harry Fry trained eight year old. Hurricane Fly had excuses for his defeat in this last year and has had a much smoother preparation this time around but I don’t think the selection got the credit he deserved for winning the 2012 renewal. The rest of the opposition will have no say in proceedings. Noel Fehily will kick on coming down the hill and he won’t see another rival thereafter. At 5/1 he’s a superb bet, especially with the Powers offer.

In the preceding race, the JLT Specialty Handicap Chase, have a few quid on Fruity O’Rooney at 14/1. Trained by Gary Moore, whose horses continue in good form, the ten year old will race off a 1lb lower mark than when he finished second in the race last year. On that occasion he held off every challenge bar the late lunge of Alfie Sherrin and a repeat of that effort will see him go close. A staying-on second at the course towards the end of January behind the progressive Katenko was a fair effort and the return to three miles and better ground is sure to suit.