UNSUNG rider Richie McLernon hopes to seize the opportunity of a lifetime today by partnering Holywell to victory in the Cheltenham Gold Cup - steeplechasing’s most prestigious prize.
He has every reason to be confident – McLernon is upbeat at the Cheltenham Festival on Jonjo O’Neill’s stable star following stirring victories in the Pertemps Final two years ago and then the three-mile handicap chase last year.
Victory would also see the 28-year-old rider emerge from the shadows of the legendary AP McCoy, who partners Irish Hennessy hero Carlingford Lough in his final Gold Cup before hanging up his saddle.
McLernon, who hails from Cork in Ireland, has been McCoy’s study at the O’Neill stable for the past seven years and his two landmark successes on Holywell came about because of the 20-times champion jockey’s commitments to his retained owner JP McManus.
“It would be great if I could win with AP second!” said McLernon who is not afraid of becoming jump racing’s ultimate party pooper as he prepares for his very first ride in the Gold Cup. “There is no room for sentiment.”
Having lost the 2011 Grand National by a photo-finish after the luckless Sunnyhill Boy was caught on the line by Neptune Collonges in a head-bobbing finish, McLernon has gradually accumulated the winners at Cheltenham thanks to his successes on Holywell and horses like Johns Spirit, a former Paddy Power Gold Cup victor.
He is also buoyed by the fact that O’Neill did not consider a higher-profile name for today’s blue riband contest.
“The first I knew was when I read in the Racing Post,” McLernon told The Yorkshire Post. “It was a real boost to confidence, just reading my name in black and white.
“Jonjo, he’s a gentleman. He is a very nice man to work for, very honest. The same with AP. He has been a massive influence. He’s someone we all look up to and I’ll have a word with him about Holywell, and the race, at some point. It’s the mark of the champion that he is like that with all the younger lads.
“Holywell is a real little character, a lovely and very kind-natured horse - a real dude. I rode Holywell when he first ran for Jonjo, at Plumpton where he finished third in January 2012. He always felt like a nice horse and just had something about him.
“He loves Cheltenham. He is only a small horse but he has got a massive heart and a lot of class and his Grade One win at Aintree last April saw him become the highest-rated novice chaser in the country. He has every chance.”
Victory for Holywell would also be significant in the history of Catterick racecourse in North Yorkshire.
It was here where the horse was runner-up in December 2013 on his second start over fences before winning the Richmond Beginners’ Chase the following month under McCoy.
He confirmed his wellbeing for today’s task by winning at Kelso last month, a success which impressed McCoy who has hinted that Holywell is potentially superior to Carlingford Lough.
“It’s amazing how different a horse he is in the spring. He just seems to be better for some reason,” observed McCoy who is seeking his third Gold Cup win after victories aboard Mr Mulligan in 1997 and Synchronised in 2011.
“He was the highest rated novice chaser last season after Aintree and he’ll only do nothing but keep improving. He is definitely a horse who will have a good chance in the Gold Cup.”
In many respects, today’s race revolves around Silviniaco Conti. The best horse in England after his wins in Haydock’s Betfair Chase and Kempton’s King George VI Chase, he will be very difficult to beat if he brings his A-game to Cheltenham.
However, the favourite has disappointed in the last two renewals – he fell in 2013 when in contention and led the field over the last 12 months ago before veering left on the run-in – and that offers hope to his rivals.
They include top novice Coneygree and The Giant Bolster who has been placed in the last three Gold Cups.
His jockey Tom Scudamore said : “He is the best horse I have ridden. I love him and David Bridgwater has done a tremendous job to get him to the Gold Cup four years on the bounce.
“I don’t think the Bolster has quite had the credit he deserves. He took a great whack two fences out last year, otherwise he may well have won.
“I see no reason why he can’t finish in the prize-money again. If he is as good as he was, and all the signs are that he is, I’ll be disappointed if he is not there or thereabouts.”
However it would be foolish to rule out a formidably strong Irish challenge headed by Jim Culloty’s defending champion Lord Windermere and Road To Riches who has won his two starts this season.
Both were Grade One races and jockey Bryan Cooper is oozing confidence after Don Poli’s RSA Chase success on Wednesday.
“You don’t know how good our lad could be. He has been impressive this year especially when winning the Lexus Chase on ground that wouldn’t have suited him at all,” he said.
“Hopefully, the rain stays away. With the ground being good and going left-handed, I see it being a big help to him. I wouldn’t swap my lad for anything.”
However Road To Riches is running at Cheltenham for the first time while Holywell is trained just a long canter from the second Cotswolds track.
It is why McLernon can dare to dream. As he said, course form is often critical and is invariably the difference between winning and losing in the biggest race of the year.