County Hurdle success and now a first Grade One for Belfast Banter
Like buses, you wait all your life for two career-defining victories and then two come at once, writes Bradley West.
A mere three weeks ago the Peter Fahey-trained Belfast Banter was just a consistent six-year-old.
But now he’s a Cheltenham Festival and Grade One winner, after the six-year-old extended his red-hot form with victory in the Top Novices’ Hurdle at the Grand National Festival.
That super performance netted Kildare trainer Fahey a first Grade One success, and it was also a first top-level win for Kevin Sexton.
The 26-year-old jockey almost packed in the sport for good after a series of injuries but has now enjoyed a life-changing month, following up an emotional County Hurdle win at Aintree.
“It’s unbelievable, it’s hard to believe what’s happened over the last month,” Sexton said.
“To have my first ride in the National tomorrow, this time last year I was sitting at home watching myself ride in the Virtual National, having never even rode in one.
“So much seems to be happening in the last few weeks, it’s hard to get my head around. It still hasn’t sunk in that I won the County Hurdle.
“It was literally the opposite of Cheltenham, he’s just suddenly developed the will to win.
“I was whispering in his ear going on the way to the start saying if he never won another race after today it wouldn’t bother me but the way he’s going, I hope he keeps winning.”
The 9/1 Belfast Banter travelled well and held off Do Your Job and Dusart – and now Sexton has a first Grand National ride to look forward to tomorrow too.
He partners Shattered Love and, after everything that has happened to him recently, what chance of the fairy tale continuing?
“He actually settled well, he jumped, he travelled like he always does,” Sexton added.
“He stopped way sooner than I thought today, I was there a country mile too soon, I was literally begging him jumping the last to keep going.
“He’s a horse you need to know, he’s a funny, quirky horse.
“Although that wasn’t a dream ride I gave him today, he rallied today, he really wanted to win.
“When he came out of his race at Cheltenham I think he actually knew what he’d done, he was bouncing and in the best form of his life.
“If you told me a couple of months ago I wouldn’t have even laugh, I’d just have walked away. I said after Cheltenham anything else that happens this season is a bonus.”
Belfast Banter’s win made it two back-to-back Irish victories to kick off day two of the festival, after Tronador won the Pertemps Network Handicap Hurdle.
That owed to a strong late finish from the 22/1 shot, as jockey Jack Kennedy’s superb form continued.
“It all went very smoothly, he jumped well and got a lovely run through,” he said.
“He wants this sort of ground and I think only in the last two weeks we’ve had that weather to get that ground for him. He’s a nice horse for these spring festivals.
“I thought we were going to go a lot quicker to be honest but we just settled down and went a nice easy gallop, and that helped my lad.”
Remarkable year continues with RTÉ Sportsperson of the Year and BBC World Sport Star awards
Rachael Blackmore will be clearing more space on her mantelpiece after a glittering weekend double capped an unforgettable 2021.
Saturday evening saw the Tipperary trailblazer named RTÉ Sportsperson of the Year and 24 hours later she was picking up the World Sport Star award at BBC Sports Personality of the Year, becoming the first Irish person to win the latter.
🗣️ “To be nominated is fantastic but to win an award like this, it’s so special, it really is.”
A memorable night for @rachaelblackmor to cap off a trailblazing year in racing 🔥👏
— Horse Racing Ireland (@HRIRacing) December 20, 2021
The awards round off a remarkable week, which has also seen the 32-year-old become The Irish Times/Sport Ireland Sportswoman of the Year and take home the Irish Racing Hero Award from the Horse Racing Ireland awards, as well as a truly incredible year.
Blackmore’s six Cheltenham winners saw her become the first woman to claim the Festival’s leading rider prize and she followed up by becoming the first female winner of the Aintree Grand National aboard Minella Times.
Blackmore’s achievements saw her beat off competition from Kellie Harrington, Ellen Keane, Cian Lynch, Leona Maguire, Jason Smyth, Vikki Wall and 2020 winner Katie Taylor in the RTÉ Sportsperson of the Year, which was won by a jockey for the first time since Tony McCoy’s victory in 2013.
“It’s incredible,” she said. “When you look at the list of those who have won it in the past, to be recognised like this is phenomenal.
“I’ve been blown away by the year of sport we’ve had – it has been an incredible year for women in sport. I’m just a bit overwhelmed.”
On Sunday evening, Blackmore was giving another acceptance speech after collecting the BBC World Sport Star prize.
Tom Brady, Novak Djokovic, Max Verstappen, Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez and Elaine Thompson-Herah were all in the running but Blackmore’s history-making exploits saw her top the public vote.
A delayed flight meant accepting the award via video link at Manchester Airport but Blackmore eventually made her way to the ceremony, meeting Britain’s Olympic diving gold medallist Tom Daley among others.
Reflecting on her achievement, Blackmore said: “The support has been incredible and I got such a kick out of being on that list of nominees. It’s kind of overwhelming. It’s unbelievable.
“I never even dreamt they [this year’s achievements] could happen to be honest. It’s far surpassed anything I could have ever imagined. It’s just been an incredible year.
“The reaction has been brilliant, obviously for me personally they are such massive things to achieve but I think when you can bring a bit of joy to other people that makes it even more special.
“The reaction from everyone at home has been incredible and I feel very privileged to have had the year I’ve had.”
Blackmore will now hope her year has room for more memorable moments at the Leopardstown Christmas Festival, with her Cheltenham heroes including Honeysuckle, Bob Olinger and Sir Gerhard among those potentially in action between December 26-29.
Mullins targeting Hatton’s Grace Hurdle with ‘mouthwatering’ Klassical Dream
Mullins gave updates on his star-studded stable with more than one eye on upcoming Grade 1s at Fairyhouse
Klassical Dream is ‘in good form’ and ready to take on superstar mare Honeysuckle in a tantalising Hatton’s Grace Hurdle later this month, according to Willie Mullins.
The seven-year-old heads Mullins’ four-pronged attack on the feature race in the BARONERACING.COM Winter Festival at Fairyhouse on November 28, one of three Grade 1s being staged on a huge Sunday of jumps action.
Honeysuckle is looking to make it a hat-trick for Henry De Bromhead and Rachael Blackmore and Mullins knows he has his work cut out to topple a mare who has won all 12 of her races to date.
But having seen Klassical Dream make an incredible return to action in April, landing the Champion Stayers Hurdle at Punchestown after a 487-day break, Mullins is holding out hope for another performance to remember.
“We’re happy that everything is going right at the moment and there hasn’t been any recurrence of his injury,” said Mullins, speaking in a press conference organised by Horse Racing Ireland.
“He’s in good form and worked nicely this morning. It was eye-opening what he did in Punchestown. He’d been working well before that but I found it hard to believe he could put that run in first time out after 18 months out against Grade 1 horses.
“The first four would have been a fantastic comeback so to do what he did was mouthwatering.
“A lot will depend on how well he works over the next few weeks, whether we’re in time to go to Fairyhouse or not – and even if not, we might get him started there.
“This race throws up good horses year after year. It’s a great indicator and it’s where to be.”
Klassical Dream is joined by Saldier, Burning Victory and Stormy Ireland as Mullins’ entries, with the former looking for a third Grade 1 triumph.
The most recent of those came in the 2019 Morgiana Hurdle on his return after a year out through injury, which Mullins feels has been affecting him in the time since.
“When he had that fall in Naas, he broke his jaw and one side of his face collapsed,” he said.
“It has just taken him all that time to get his confidence back jumping again and hopefully he can improve.
“A longer trip, like the two and a half miles of this race, will be right up his street. The Hatton’s Grace will fit nicely into his schedule.”
On his remaining contenders, both Grade 2 winners at Fairyhouse, he added: “Stormy Ireland is a funny little mare who is at her best when she’s nearly unmanageable on the gallop and she’s in that kind of form at the moment.
“One of her best runs ever was her three-year-old maiden hurdle at Fairyhouse [in 2017], she likes the track and she’s coming back into form.
“With Burning Victory, we have to improve her jumping. At the moment, she can jump half the hurdles in a race. Once she gets her jumping act together, I think her racing will take a hike.”
Arctic Fire provided Mullins’ last Hatton’s Grace Hurdle in 2015 and he also has sights set on the day’s other Grade 1s, with six entered for the Royal Bond Novice Hurdle.
No trainer has won the race more than Mullins, who is looking for a ninth Royal Bond triumph and has high hopes for Farout and Arctic Warrior.
“Farout has jumped very well apart from last time for some reason, when he jumped appallingly in Listowel,” he said.
“He still finished second, but was well beaten because of his jumping.
“I’m hoping whatever went wrong that day doesn’t go wrong again – because if he keeps his jumping together, he’s going to be involved coming to the second-last.
“Arctic Warrior could be anything. He certainly shows me a lot at home – and if everything goes right for him, he’s a horse that will run a very big race.”
Bleu Berry and Robinnia, meanwhile, are entered for the Drinmore Novice Chase on what is set to be a top-class day of action.
Elsewhere in Mullins’ star-studded yard, Al Boum Photo is set for a runout before Christmas while Monkfish is out for the season with a tendon injury.
John Ryan and Danny Mullins prove a winning combination yet again
John Ryan landed a double as Grange Walk took the opening beginners’ chase and Fairyhill Run won the first of the two-mile six-furlong handicap chase at Limerick on Saturday.
It was pretty straightforward for both horses with 6/1 chance Grange Walk kicking clear before the final fence under Danny Mullins to win by three and a quarter lengths from the Henry de Bromhead-trained 3/1 joint-favourite Eagle Moon.
Fourteen lengths was the winning margin as Fairyhill Run and Bryan Cooper justified 85/40 favouritism in the later race, they made all the running in the colours of owner Thomas Meagher to win easily from the Paul Nolan-trained Our Friend.
In the Robcour colours, Rachael Blackmore also had an easy time as she won the novice chase on the Henry de Bromhead-trained Gin On Lime. A 1/4 favourite, the five-year-old made all the running for a facile 12-length success over the Joseph O’Brien-trained Star Max.
Blackmore had to work a little harder as she completed a double for de Bromhead and his owners on Tune The Chello in the mares’ beginners’ chase. The 11/10 favourite had to battle and had a length to spare over the Shane Crawley-trained Reine Fee at the line.