SAFE-HANDS CULLOTY IS BEST MAN

2 March 2003

No one is more entitled to feel the heat at Cheltenham than the Irishman who is gunning for back-to-back Gold Cups

Jim Culloty is a man at ease with himself. Or he will be until 10 minutes before he goes out to try to win a second Gold Cup on Best Mate in 11 days.

“That’s the moment,” he said at Chepstow on Wednesday between riding two horses several stones off the Best Mate scale, “when you come back into the room after weighing out and giving the trainer your saddle. Everyone is asking what your plans are and you are trying to work out what you are doing, then you become really, really focussed.”

A huge leap of imagination is needed to get us from low-key, late March emptiness of Chepstow to Cheltenham on Gold Cup day. But the Culloty voice is as clipped, as insistent and as Irish as you would expect from an accountant’s family in Killarney. “You are in tunnel vision,” he says, “when you are going around the parade ring and people are saying `hello’ and `good luck’ you do not even notice them.”

This is pressure with a capital `P’. To be booked to ride the hot favourite in the Gold Cup is to know long in advance that the World Cup final is coming down to penalties and you will be taking the decider. If you don’t score you get the blame, rather than the goalie the credit. Most people, very much including Culloty, believe Best Mate to be the best horse in the Gold Cup. If he doesn’t win, `pilot error’ will be the first suspect.

Especially as 29-year-old Culloty remains a largely uncharismatic figure compared to the higher-profile likes of Ruby Walsh, Mick Fitzgerald, Richard Johnson and, of course, the peerless A P McCoy. Jim may have doubled up Best Mate’s Gold Cup with Bindaree’s Grand National last spring but, with just 43 winners this season, he rests at 10th place in the jockeys’ table and critics usually list competence in front of brilliance among his virtues. He is something of a Gary Neville of a player.

He even has Neville’s nose if not anything approaching the football player’s weekly stipend.

In jockeys’ terms, Culloty is an educated man whose idea of a good evening is watching the History Channel in the Oxfordshire cottage he shares with his girlfriend. His father, the first of a farming line to go to university, returned to set up an accountancy firm in the family home off Killarney’s Fitzgerald GAA Stadium. His brother, Mike, now runs the business. At school Jim was good at maths, biology and German. Where did it all go wrong?

The answer was small and chesnut and called `Tony The Pony’. Unlike the other seven (three boys and four girls) Culloty siblings, Jim was obsessed with riding. “It was the best incentive for homework any parent could hope for,” said his father, Donal. “He couldn’t go to his pony until he had finished his work. When he was still only 13 he spent a summer with my friend and trainer John Kennedy in Kilkenny and, even though he later passed all his school exams, the advert he saw in the Irish Field when he was 18 for a job in an English point-to-point yard with `guaranteed rides’ was absolutely made for him.”

Culloty’s mother, Maureen, believed he would still be back for University entrance that October but her son was in too deep to return. “We were out on Bodmin Moor,” remembers Culloty, “right in the middle of nowhere, working 18 hours a day, but they rewarded me well by giving me the point-to-point rides. The winners began, confidence grew and it brought out my competitive side.”

But this was to be no overnight sensation. After two more years in West Country obscurity he moved east to join Henrietta Knight and Terry Biddlecombe at Lockinge but got to Christmas without a winner. It took the aptly-named Full Of Oats scoring on consecutive Saturdays at Warwick to kick open the door. That was in January 1996.

I remember the intelligent earnestness with which this unknown young Kerryman answered my TV questions. He appeared to know where he was going and within months he had got there – champion amateur via a string of big-race successes and an astonishing 13-winner week over Easter.

But that was seven years ago. Until last spring’s Gold Cup and Grand National twin peak ascent, racing’s received wisdom of the professional Culloty was adequate rather than super effective, a man who could deliver but not improvise. It was an impression only heightened when the Knight/Biddlecombe stable used Tony McCoy instead of Culloty to dazzling effect on Edredon Bleu to win the Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham in 2000.

But Culloty stuck at it and Knight and Biddlecombe stuck by him. Not for them the easy hot-tempered public quote which quickly ignites an unquenchable fire of controversy. Henrietta Knight wanted a consistent pair of hands on her horses; in Best Mate she believed she had the very absolute of equine talent. Terry Biddlecombe, as a jockey the cavalier pole reverse of Culloty, never wavered in his instructive, if sometimes four-lettered, support.

Not even when a desperately-unhappy ride lost Best Mate the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham in 2000 (admittedly Culloty countered this by winning the Sun Alliance Chase next day on Lord Noellie). It has become a constructive if combustible partnership. First time out this year a pressurised Best Mate was hussled into a dangerous mistake at the second-last. “I should never have fired him at it,” said Culloty to Biddlecombe as he returned. The old champion accepted it as candour rather than confession. “I know,” he said.

There is now a “they can’t take it away from me” surety about Culloty. He is limiting himself to “safe conveyances” to avoid injury during the next week and has got himself an extra soft whip to avoid even the trace of a punishable mark on any of his horses. The rest is countdown. “I always sleep well,” says Jim, “and I enjoy all these pre-Cheltenham quizzes. They are a great way to get yourself briefed on all the opposition.

“This year I have got some great rides outside Best Mate. There’s Impex in the Arkle, Lord Sam in the Sun Alliance Hurdle and Inca Trail, also for Henrietta, in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. But, above all, there is Best Mate. You could not find a nicer horse. He is big, almost 17 hands, but he is so quick, so light on his feet, so intelligent. He is like a cat.”

It is time to ask what tactics he will use to fend off the challenges of Beef Or Salmon and the others. “I have got an idea of what I might do,” he adds with the accountant’s canniness back in his voice, “but I am not going to discuss it in public. I believe in him [Best Mate] and myself a hundred per cent. I think I can perform every bit as well as the other jocks. I like to think I can perform better than them in some circumstances. Everybody has their own strong points and weak points”.

As we go into all the `nudge-nudge, wink-wink’ pre-Cheltenham punter mania, it is easy to forget the oldest truth that it is the horse who does the running. What you need from the jockey is the solidity; the mental strength as well as the physical talent to allow the horse to express its talent. That’s what you get from Jim Culloty.

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