SUNDAY TIMES, 13 December 2021
It’s one thing to say “if I ever had a winner at Cheltenham, I’d do it like a pig and roll in the muck”, quite another to actually carry it out. But that’s what Mick Winters did on the most hallowed paddock in jump racing after Chatham Street Lad won the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup today.
The 66-year-old from Kanturk in County Cork was not in a tweed suit and trilby either. It was purple jeans, red anorak and a green, white and red bobble hat proclaiming loyalty to owner Vivian Healy’s Co Mayo in the west. Mick’s accent maybe thick to the point of unintelligible to English ears, but his understanding of horses is as sharp as his eccentricity is engaging. The previous horse he saddled in Britain was a mare called Missunited who won at Goodwood in 2014 after running second in the Ascot Gold Cup and a year earlier landing the Galway Hurdle.
Chatham Street Lad may not be quite up to that standard but he and the talented young jockey Darragh O’Keefe were far too good for today’s field, coming home a full 15 lengths clear of Sue and Harvey Smith’s Midnight Shadow with the brave Benatar a further 12 lengths back in his first race since January last year. He and his rightly jubilant connections will be welcomed back at the Festival but will probably find it much tougher next time.
But who cares about that? This was one of just about the best sharing of jubilation that the game has ever seen. “It was outstanding,” Michael said in a now unstoppable flow, “it was a local jockey as well. This is spectacular. I’d be very humble about this. Racing is very special and the horses are treated so kind and people don’t realise it. It would be great to give something back as we are only passing through.”
At this stage Michael has already seen plenty but for O’Keefe the game has just begun. It’s only his fourth season, this was his first winner at Cheltenham and while afterwards he happily said how much he had dreamt of such a moment, few dreams were ever delivered so well. Let’s hope we see plenty more of Winters; be sure to follow O’Keefe on his upward journey.
Sadly the onward path now looks much tougher for Benatar’s stablemate Goshen who completely blew out to finish last of ten behind Song For Someone and Silver Streak in the Unibet International Hurdle. Last year’s brilliant juvenile did pull very hard early but that was no excuse; getting boxed as the field cleared the final hurdle was more obvious misfortune for Silver Streak, who was only a nose off Song For Someone at the line.
But the five-year-old Song For Someone is the star that Tom Symonds’s ten-year training career has been waiting for. Winters has been around a whole lot longer and by all accounts there have been some dodgy times when his wife Patricia has had to bale him out.
“I owed money to two banks and two credit unions,” he has said of his past. “It was all from the gambling. Patricia drove the fire engine in Kanturk to get in the extra cash to pay off the loans. We were half-hungry, but never starving.” He’s not starving now. But those jeans will need a clean.