9 February 2003
The hype will double if Ireland’s latest chasing star can see off Florida Pearl’s formidable challenge in today’s feature race at Leopardstown
At 8.30 in the soft early light of a Limerick Friday morning, the most impressive new sight in racing began to draw away from me at full gallop. It was a sight jockeys will have to get used to, most imminently in this afternoon’s Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown. The sight was Beef Or Salmon’s arse.
Forgive the vernacular, but it is a quite magnificent arse. It is huge and round and powerful, a mass of ginger chestnut muscle which was propelling the seven-year-old contender clear as if he wanted to run a hole in the wind. Forget the videos and the form books, the way to study a star racehorse is from the saddle.
On Friday I also had the unmatchable pleasure of being carried by none other than Beef Or Salmon’s old hero of a stable companion, Doran’s Pride, winner of 30 of his 71 races and today so rejuvenated by a hat-trick of point-to-point victories that he reappears in a later race at Leopardstown at the grand old age of 14.
It was Doran’s Pride who put Michael Hourigan into the big time, who won at Cheltenham, who ran in four consecutive Gold Cups, who was the stable star they thought they would never replace. Doran’s Pride’s chestnut neck is set straight and thick as he rockets beneath me, but just look at that horse up ahead. Beef Or Salmon, named after the somewhat uncomplicated menu at Hourigan’s local, is the one who could top the lot. Even as we flash past the short, squat figure of the trainer standing in his usual place, three quarters of the way up the straight, six-furlong sand gallop, you can feel the symmetry of it all.
Ten years ago Doran’s Pride was just about to start his 70-race journey with a win in a bumper at Ballinrobe. At that stage Michael Hourigan and his family were still living in the two-up, two-down cottage on the edge of the Lisaleen yard he was in the process of converting from a `green field’ outside Adare to its present no-frills equine beehive with up to 100 horses being put through their drills every day in an intricately choreographed routine dependant on automatic horse walkers, little more than a dozen-strong team of riders, and the back-up of contracted Eastern European labour.
The whole complex has been built on Hourigan’s genius for spotting and developing young talent. Three years ago this summer he was at the sales when a big chestnut four-year-old came through by a little known American stallion called Cajetano. “He was a very good looking horse,” Hourigan remembers. “He looked an athlete as far as I was concerned. I got him for £6,200. That was a bit more than I usually give.”
Three years on, his present owners Joe Craig and Danny McLernon, have had offers of almost a hundred times that figure, and even in the box you can see that you are getting plenty of athlete for your money. Beef Or Salmon is 16.3 hands (5ft 7in) at the shoulder, has a great slab of almost coach horse neck in front of him, and before you reach that magnificent posterior you can run your hand along a ribcage which is quite awesomely thick-muscled for a horse in the very prime of fitness.
Today will be the seventh race of what is only Beef Or Salmon’s second full season, and one in which he has been unlucky to have been beaten at all, and only then in the prestigious November Handicap on the Flat at The Curragh. Running on the Flat was a typical piece of Hourigan unorthodoxy which had already paid off with a first-time-out victory at Galway, ridden by the trainer’s daughter, Laura. But the next move was even bolder. Eschewing the standard practice of keeping a young steeplechaser among other novices, Hourigan put Beef Or Salmon straight in against the top class and took the trick each time.
The trio of victories, over two and a half miles, two miles and in December’s stunning Ericcson Chase success over today’s Leopardstown three-mile course, represents an astonishing start to a jumping career, and if the young tyro puts three-times Hennessy winner Florida Pearl in the shade this afternoon, he will go to Cheltenham not just as second favourite to Best Mate in the Gold Cup but as the only horse to do so without ever having raced in novice company.
The hype is beginning to gather, making a reality check a necessity, and demanding an answer to three snags, two physical and one strategic. Beef Or Salmon is a very poor walker, has virtually no tail, and his jumping experience is desperately limited for the ordeal ahead.
The trainer is dismissive of the first, sanguine about the second and optimistic on the third. “He just walks stiff when he comes out of the box,” Hourigan says. “He soon loosens up. He hardly has any tail, a good horse should have a good tail but he must be the exception. As for his jumping, sure he will do some learning but like all my horses he did so much jumping before he ran in his point-to-point that he can do it as natural as walking.”
An hour earlier I had been loaded up on a huge, loping puppy of a four-year-old to experience the way Hourigan would have handled Beef Or Salmon in his early days. Our half-dozen animals would have already spent half an hour on the horse walker before our little group mounted up and went to hack so many laps of the quarter-mile sand circuit that cramp began to grip the inside leg. “It’s plenty of work but we just go quietly,” says Hourigan as he sponges his young hopeful afterwards before returning him to the horse walker. “Yet this `hoss’ has already done lots of jumping and come April he will probably win his point-to-point straight up.”
Beef Or Salmon is a superb advert for Hourigan’s system but it still depends on a flair which the orthodox would fear to follow. For instance, now he has started to actually race over fences, Beef Or Salmon’s jumping `homework’ is over. “I won’t school him between races,” Hourigan says. “He knows how to jump. When he gets there I want him to be just that bit keen and nervous for what is coming.”
For at heart, Michael Hourigan remains an instinctive, he likes to work not just with his hands but his eyes. “Tis like looking at a girl,” he says with a naughty twinkle in that bold, battered-potato face. “You want something to catch you, to make you say `what was that’.”