A WEEK might, according to former Yorkshire premier Harold Wilson, be a long-time in politics, but a year is a lifetime in the careers of the magnificent mare Maria’s Benefit and her young jockey Ciaran Gethings.
It was during last year’s Cheltenham Festival that Gethings first rode the formidable front-runner when she won her Bumper at Huntingdon from Kim Bailey’s well-regarded Blazon.
Now horse and rider head to this week’s National Hunt Festival as leading contenders for Thursday’s Dawn Run Mares’ Novices Hurdle, a new addition to the Cheltenham card that, in its only two runnings to date, has been monopolised by Ireland’s all-conquering trainer Willie Mullins and jockey Ruby Walsh who will be teaming up this week with odds-on favourite Laurina, an exciting French import.
However Gethings, and the mare’s trainer Stuart Edmunds, are buoyed by the manner of their horse’s victory in the Yorkshire Rose Mares’ Hurdle at Doncaster on her last outing when she withstood the late challenge of the Henry Brooke-ridden Irish Roe.
With Irish Roe, trained by Northallerton farmer Peter Atkinson and his wife Lucinda, a very doubtful runner unless the ground at Cheltenham dries out significantly before declarations close tomorrow, 23-year-old Gethings is hopeful of a big run.
Unlike those jockeys who become tense in the Festival build-up, the conditional rider, already on a career-best 29 winners for the season, is relishing the prestige of its occasion – he’s still to ride his first winner at Cheltenham – and is buoyed by a hard-fought confidence-boosting victory on top prospect Queenohearts, a stablemate to six-year-old Maria’s Benefit, in a prestigious Mares’ Open Bumper at Sandown on Saturday.
“I don’t really feel the pressure,” said the well-travelled Gethings whose mount Kaloci was second at Catterick last week. “It’s great to be going there with a proper live chance. I’m very much looking forward to it. It’s the best week of the year.”
Speaking to The Yorkshire Post, it is clear that the association with Maria’s Benefit, and Milton Keynes-based Edmunds, has been the making of a jockey who is finally fulfilling his potential.
He spent six years with leading Westcountry trainer Philip Hobbs learning his trade from, amongst others, champion jockey Richard Johnson.
Yet Gethings chose last summer to switch to the Gloucestershire stable of Tom George where he’s enjoyed more opportunities and the chance to ride for trainers like the aforementioned Edmunds.
He’s not looked back, even more after using one of the more unfortunate mishaps of his career to positive effect. Bombarded with hurtful social media abuse after he was unseated from Deckers Delight when he became unbalanced in the saddle at Hereford early last year – critics accused him of ‘jumping off’ – he had to shun Twitter and Facebook because the comments became so hurtful.
Now he’s just happy to let his riding do the talking. “I had to learn to get over it,” said a candid Gethings who is now established as one of Britain’s top young riders. “It makes you a stronger person. Before Huntingdon last year, I’d ridden little bit for Stuart as an amateur and Dave Roberts got me the ride on Maria’s Benefit. It’s all gone from there.
“In her Bumper, you could tell she had a lot of potential – she’s a very, very good mare. She always had a lot of class, but we tried to ride her differently at Aintree and it didn’t work out. We tried to hold her up but it’s clear now she settles best when in front.”
It explains the manner of her victories under Gethings this season at Newton Abbot, Sandown, Ludlow and Taunton where she galloped her rivals into submission and won by a wide-margin 30 lengths. Yet Gethings says the most pleasing win, his sixth in total on the horse, came at Doncaster. He says he was unaware that he had built up a seemingly unassailable lead before turning into the long home straight, where so many St Legers have changed hands in the past, and a ferocious head wind.
He takes up the story. “She had run very free that day and knocked a few hurdles to the ground,” said the jockey. “It didn’t look it, but she was very, very vulnerable up the home straight but she put her head down when Irish Roe challenged and battled it out. At least we know that she can find more when she comes off the bridle and is asked for an effort.”
Meanwhile the aforementioned Edmunds says his only concern is forecast soft ground at Cheltenham. “She did her last three-quarters piece of work on Saturday morning,” he said. “She is very well and I couldn’t be more happier with her. I think she is better on better ground, but the jockey said it won’t bother her.”
As for £2,000 bargain buy Irish Roe, Lucinda Atkinson is monitoring conditions after the mare was pulled up in Newbury’s Betfair Hurdle last month when the ground became a quagmire. “She’s absolutely fine. Newbury was annoying, but that’s the way it is,” she said philosophically. “It needs to dry out at Cheltenham. Some miracles need to happen, but if you’re not entered, you can’t go.”