No one likes to be the bearer of bad news. Alas, it fell to the Guardian on Thursday to inform Andrew Gemmell, owner of the champion staying hurdler Paisley Park, that Benie Des Dieux had just hosed up in a race in Ireland, looking like a very serious challenger indeed for his horse’s crown.
Even over the phone, one can tell it is not what Gemmell wanted to hear. But nor does it come as a surprise to the man whose enthusiasm for the game, unhindered by the fact that he has been blind since birth, has made him one of racing’s most popular owners.
“She looked like an aeroplane when she won in France in May, I remember,” says Gemmell, whose friends keep him up to speed with any racing news he has not already heard on the TV. “I’ve said all along the biggest threat was going to be whatever [Willie] Mullins sent over.”
In the wake of her Gowran success this week, Mullins hailed Benie Des Dieux as potentially the best mare he has trained, no small praise from the man who nurtured Annie Power and Quevega. The Irishman is now mulling whether to run Benie in the Mares Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival or to be more ambitious and try her in the Stayers.
That means there is, arguably, a bit of pressure on Paisley Park to perform to his best in today’s Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham, just his second outing since he took Gemmell to the Festival winner’s enclosure last March. An impressive win may persuade Mullins to take the easier option with his new star, smoothing the way for Paisley Park to win a second Stayers. Conversely, a scrambled success or any kind of defeat today will probably mean having to face Benie Des Dieux in March.
Gemmell declines to approach the Cleeve in such competitive terms, however. “I’m nervous but I think the most important thing is to be there for the 12th of March. As long as he runs well, I won’t lose any sleep over it. I’d like to think we’ll win but I’m not going to get upset over it if he doesn’t.”
The owner’s nerves are amplified by the fact that Paisley Park is not his only interest this afternoon. He also has a quarter-share in De Rasher Counter, who takes on some big-name rivals in the Cotswold Chase, the intention being to find out whether he might belong in the Gold Cup field two months hence.
Gemmell readily acknowledges that De Rasher Counter has already achieved his main aim for this season, winning the Ladbrokes Trophy in November. “Whatever happens now is a bonus. People get a bit carried away with expectations; let’s just see. If he does win or runs well, then brilliant.”
Both horses are in the care of Emma Lavelle, whose career has taken a notable step forward since she moved to new premises near Marlborough in 2016. As is always the case for jumps trainers, there are plenty of bad days mixed in with the good and it was, in her words, “heartbreaking” when the promising youngster Fontsanta suffered a fatal fall at Newbury a week before Christmas.
While the outside world was merely aware that the six-year-old had a decent reputation, Lavelle and her husband, Barry Fenton, cherished hopes Fontsanta would eventually make up into a Gold Cup contender. Such losses are bound to be deeply felt, for all that there are other high-profile horses in Lavelle’s stable.
She reports both of today’s Cheltenham runners in fine health and says Paisley Park is “absolutely bouncing”. “There’s a few horses he hasn’t met before, like If The Cap Fits and Summerville Boy. It’s competitive. He’s gonna have a race, no matter what.”
Of the progress made by her team as a whole, Lavelle says: “I think you never stop learning but we have a very good routine in place and an understanding of where the horses need to be on each of the gallops before they’re ready to run. We’ve had great support from owners.
“You’d be not human if you didn’t feel nerves about a day like this. But how lucky are we to be in that position, to be feeling the nerves? To have those horses, this is what you’re after. I’m a lot happier feeling nervous than just rocking up at Cheltenham for a day out.”