YORKSHIRE training legend Michael Dickinson’s feat of training the first five horses home in the 1983 Cheltenham Gold Cup was nearly matched by leading owner Michael O’Leary in one of Ireland’s premier steeplechases.
O’Leary, the boss of airline Ryanair and head of the Gigginstown House Stud, was responsible for Road To Respect, Balko Des Flos and Outlander – the first three home in Leopardstown’s Grade One Christmas Chase.
His maroon and white colours were also carried by Alpha Des Obeaux and Valseur Lido, who finished fifth and sixth, with the tycoon only denied a Dickinson-like ‘clean sweep’ by Jonjo O’Neill’s Minella Rocco in fourth.
While offering further evidence of Gigginstown’s dominance in Ireland, the big disappointment was Jessica Harrington’s Cheltenham Gold Cup hero Sizing John, who was a remote seventh in the colours of Barnsley-born owner Alan Potts and his wife Ann – the couple both died this year.
The champion’s first defeat since last year’s Leopardstown’s meeting, it enhances next year’s Gold Cup claims of the enigmatic Might Bite, who won Kempton’s King George VI Chase on Boxing Day and is now the clear favourite for the blue riband race.
A visibly disappointed jockey Robbie Power said his mount “was never going” and the seven-year-old was reported by vets to be distressed following the race. His Cheltenham participation must now be in serious doubt.
I suppose when it works out it’s always a great ride, but it was actually an absolute peach of a ride. He’s a Gold Cup contender now, so he’ll go for the Gold Cup. Whether he runs in between or not, I don’t know.Road To respect trainer, Noel Meade
Yet nothing should be taken away from the Noel Meade-trained and Sean Flanagan-ridden winner – Road To Respect has been on the upgrade since winning a fiercely competitive handicap chase at this year’s Cheltenham Festival and is now a genuine Gold Cup contender after having headwear applied to improve concentration.
“Everything went according to plan. The hood obviously worked well. Sean rode him the other day and he said maybe a hood might help him to settle early on. He settled great and he gave him a most beautiful ride,” said Meade. “I suppose when it works out it’s always a great ride, but it was actually an absolute peach of a ride.
“He’s a Gold Cup contender now, so he’ll go for the Gold Cup. Whether he runs in between or not, I don’t know.
“I always felt we were travelling like a winner, but I didn’t let a yip out of me until they were 50 yards from the line. Sean has gone from strength to strength for us since he took over (from Paul Carberry as stable jockey) and we couldn’t be happier. We get on very well together and he rides very well. The more confidence he gets, the better he is riding.”
As for Flanagan, he has no qualms about Cheltenham’s ultimate three-and-a-quarter mile test on this showing.
“He’s been a very good horse to me in general and did everything perfectly (yesterday). I’m delighted,” he said.
“I thought halfway down the back I was too far back and was flat out and couldn’t be much closer. There was no hiding place and it was a true-run race. To be fair when I got a bit of room he came alive. He’s got loads of speed.
“He’s a very good horse. I wouldn’t be worried about the Gold Cup distance as he settled well there and he has won at the track before.”
Native River will step up his preparations ahead of a potential return in the Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham on January 27 with a racecourse gallop next week.
The extended three-mile one-furlong contest is one of two Grade Two races, alongside the Denman Chase at Newbury on February 10, being considered as a possible starting point for the seven-year-old by trainer Colin Tizzard.
Second in the 2016 West Yorkshire Hurdle at Wetherby, the stout stayer went on to land the prestigious Hennessy Gold Cup and Welsh National under Richard Johnson.
However, the chaser has not raced since finishing third in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in March.
Tizzard said: “He is going to have a racecourse gallop next week and he is ready now for that. We are just looking at running in something before the Gold Cup.”