Michael O’Sullivan produced an ice-cool ride aboard Marine Nationale to register a famous victory for trainer Barry Connell in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.
O’Sullivan was still in college when Constitution Hill was winning the Festival opener 12 months ago, while his only previous taste of the Prestbury Park showpiece was an uneventful spin on an outsider in the Kim Muir in 2022.
The young Irishman pounced late to secure the Royal Bond earlier in the season and followed a similar script here, riding the unbeaten six-year-old with ultimate confidence.
As 9-4 favourite Facile Vega forced his way to the front in the hands of Paul Townend two out and then lengthened for home, O’Sullivan was motionless aboard Marine Nationale, with a target firmly locked on Facile Vega’s tail.
🗣 "I told the whole of Ireland to back the two horses. And we're coming back for a double with Good Land tomorrow!"— Racing TV (@RacingTV) March 14, 2023
Fantastic stuff here from Barry Connell, trainer of brilliant Sky Bet Supreme winner Marine Nationale 👏 #CheltenhamFestival pic.twitter.com/DQRrapaXCA
Jumping the last Marine Nationale still had a length to find, but once clearing the final obstacle the result was a formality and O’Sullivan simply had to push the button aboard the 9-2 shot as he sprinted clear for a three-and-a-quarter-length success.
It was also a huge moment in the fledgling training career of owner-trainer Connell, whose colours have been seen in the Cheltenham winner’s enclosure before but for the first time with the former amateur rider’s name on the training licence.
O'Sullivan said: "They didn't go a great gallop, but that suited me because my horse is quick.
"I was in a slightly wider position that I would have liked, but I was happy with the room because he doesn't have a lot of experience.
"I was alongside Facile Vega and travelling very well. At the bottom of the hill I was just saving him, Paul had kicked on Facile but I was happy enough that he'd come back to me.
"He had a good look at the last, we went and popped it and he actually won very snuggly in the end, I never got serious on him at all, I gave him a few flicks but that was it.
"We know he's going to be better on better ground, it was an unbelievable performance, he's not even having a blow.
"The ground wasn't as bad as it was when he won the Royal Bond at Fairyhouse, I was just hoping it allowed him to show his true ability."
He added: "His jumping will get better. He didn't really put a foot wrong but he wasn't as quick through the air as you'd like for a two-miler, but I think on better ground he would be, he's an intelligent horse in general and I'm so lucky to be involved in him.
"Barry being confident didn't put pressure on me, but I suppose the punters took it into account and that brings a small bit of pressure but I can only do what I can do. Barry put his neck out and he was right.
"I've been dreaming of this day since I was a kid. It's a bit surreal and it won't sink in yet, this year has been so good it's hard to appreciate it, I don't think it can be topped but I'm just enjoying every minute of it."
Sam Twiston-Davies (Rare Edition, PU): “Disappointing, so pulled up safe and sound. There will be another day”
Rachael Blackmore (Inthepocket, 4th): “He ran very well, that was him today.”
Patrick Mullins (Diverge, 3rd): “Ran a cracker, settled really well, jumped super and stayed all the way to the line. The next time I’d probably ride him more forward, but lots to look forward to.”
More from Barry Connell, via Graham Clarke
“How do you think it feels? Best feeling of all time! I put a lot of pressure on myself, saying he was the best horse I’ve ever had. He’s very, very quick. He’s unlike any other horse we’ve had before - they were mainly stayers, the G1 horses - this is a quick horse, he’s probably a G1 horse on the Flat, and we might get around to that at some stage. But today was his day. He’s had five runs and won all five. His jockey is a superstar. My staff are the best staff anywhere in the world - they’ve made the whole operation and I’d like to say a fantastic thanks to all the staff. I put huge pressure on myself. I came over on the boat and every Irish person was on the boat. I told them all to back the two horses, I said they were the two best novice horses in Ireland, so at least I’m off the hook, partially. Or I would have had to put on a disguise going home if we’d got beat!
“We’ve got about 25 horses at home riding out, and another 15 in the system, so maybe about 40 in total. A lot of them are young horses; we’re a start-up operation and we’ve only had the licence two and a half years. We bought the farm five years ago and put the facilities and staff in place, and it’s only this year it’s beginning to bear fruit. About half the yard haven’t run yet. This one is a six-year-old, the guy tomorrow is a seven-year-old. We give them plenty of time; they are big units, you can’t rush them, you have to let them come to you, and we’re absolutely blessed to have found the next superstar of the weighing-room in Michael O’Sullivan. You mark his name. Did you ever see a cooler ride in Cheltenham? Unbelievable.
“I’ve been talking this horse up because it’s what we’re seeing it at home, the bits of work they’re doing, what he’s shown in his bumpers. The Royal Bond didn’t work out for him - it went against him, and the one thing we learnt in the Royal Bond is what he finds off the bridle, because he was never off the bridle in his life before. He put his neck down, the jockey didn’t panic, gathered him up and got him balanced. Look, he’s got every attribute you want. I’ve said before, if you want to win a G1 in Cheltenham, you need four attributes. You need a quick horse - it’s an undulating track, a tight track, and you want to be able to hold his position. You want to be a very good jumper. You want a very good temperament, which he has, you saw him walking round the paddock like a sheepdog beforehand. Plus you need guts, stamina to stay up the hill, and he’s got all them in spades.
“I enjoy it [training horses as well as owning them] about 150% more. I rode into the winner’s enclosure here twice at the November meeting, and winning as an owner pales into insignficance besides that. This is unreal because all year round I enjoy the process of getting out of the car in the morning and just being with the horses. I love being with the horses, going round the yard, going out on to the gallops, talking to the staff. This is the icing on the cake. The whole process is what I love, you know. It really energises me. I source all these horses and have a staff of 11 people - they are exceptional, and I hope we are only just beginning the journey now.
“I think we’ll come back here for the Arkle next year. Those are my initial thoughts at this period in time, but today is for enjoying today. He’s put him out in a field and then make an entry for Punchestown. I got him from Sam Curling during Covid. He had him as a young horse and was going to run him point to points but all the point to points were called off, so we got one of our riders to ride him, liked him and bought him.
“He’s got a funny pedigree - his sire French Navy is in India now. We made an enquiry about getting him back, but I don’t think the owner wants to sell him. Michael O’Sullivan was champion novice point to point rider. He hasn’t come from the flapping pony racing field, he’s come from proper horsemen. And he’s a thinker, a very smart guy. He’s got his university degree already. He’s 23, he’s not a kid, and I have no problem him not being able to claim - he doesn’t need his claim. I never thought in any circumstances about putting a more experienced jockey on. If you gave me any jockey, I wouldn’t swap him.”
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