By Jon Lees
Sean Flanagan believes Road To Respect will have “a massive chance” at Cheltenham next week when the jockey returns to the country where he once “couldn’t get a ride with an open cheque book”.
Flanagan, 30, briefly gave up riding after an unsuccessful stint in Britain eight years ago – but now as stable jockey to the powerful Noel Meade yard, he is hoping to make a lasting impression on his second appearance at the Festival.
Meade, a five-time Festival winner, has his team in peak form – having sent out four winners from four runners at Navan and Leopardstown over the weekend, three ridden by Flanagan.
The trainer has multiple entries at Cheltenham, his team headed by Grade One winner and Gigginstown-owned Road To Respect, a winner at the 2017 Festival who holds entries in both the Ryanair Chase and Cheltenham Gold Cup.
“Road To Respect actually worked yesterday and worked really well,” said Flanagan.
“The decision is with them. I do think the Gold Cup is going to be a very competitive race this year, and going back to the Ryanair could be a more realistic option.
“I know we have Monalee and Footpad to beat – but I think he has the beating of Monalee. Whether he has to beat Footpad is yet to be decided.
“He has a massive chance, going either way. He showed last year, and when he won at Cheltenham the year before, that he really handles the track and he seems to be an improving type.”
Road To Respect, fourth to Native River in last year’s Gold Cup, won the Grade One JNwine.com Champion Chase at Down Royal on his return this season. He was then hampered and stumbled on the way to finishing third in the Savills Chase, and on his last start went down by a short head to Bellshill in the Irish Gold Cup.
“It was a complete nightmare at Christmas,” said Flanagan.
“They didn’t go quick enough, and I was stuck in a pocket and couldn’t go anywhere. To finish where he did was a magnificent run.
“It was the ground that cost him at the Dublin Racing Festival, and he didn’t let himself down. He jumped really well but missed a couple of fences at a crucial time, and he was still only beaten a whisker.
“He hasn’t won three Grade One races this year, but he has been very competitive in two and won one really well.”
Targets have yet to be confirmed for a number of other Meade candidates, including Tout Est Permis who is entered in the Ryanair and the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
“He is only six but very progressive.” said Flanagon.
“He has only had three runs for us, his first in a handicap chase at Galway which he won nicely. He won the Troytown very well, then he stepped up to Grade Two at Thurles for the Kinloch Brae and he won that – although on a lot quicker ground than he needs.
“He would love a trip, and the hill at Cheltenham, but whether he goes for any of them is all very much up in the air. I think he is a bit young to have a go at the Gold Cup – but he is a very exciting horse for the future.”
Flanagan also reckons Future Proof (Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle) and First Approach (Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle) will have each-way claims – while he rates Cap York (Pertemps Final/Martin Pipe) as still “unexposed”.
They represent opportunities he once feared he would never get during a period after he had ridden out his claim, suffered two spells of injury and found opportunities to progress his career in Ireland limited.
“I was in England for eight months in 2011 and rode out for a lot of different people,” he said.
“I really liked England as a place to ride and work. But however many rides I had, the Ryanair Hurdle victory on Identity Thief at Aintree last year was my first ever winner in the UK. So it didn’t go too well.
“It’s unbelievable really. The day I came back from England I rode for LIz Doyle in a Pertemps qualifier at the Leopardstown Christmas Festival, and he got injured.
“In Ireland we renew our licence in January, and I didn’t bother. I had given up in a sense. But then a friend asked me to ride work, and I gradually got back into it.
“I had been putting a lot of pressure on myself to be the best. After taking some weeks out, I went back – and I had a new outlook. I got into a few different yards, starting with Harry Kelly in Tipperary, who had a lot of nice bumper horses, and an opportunity came up in America.
“I was there in 2013, and when I came back Harry’s bumper horses were about to go hurdling – and it spiralled from that. I rode a few winners for him, and then Harry’s brother advised me to go to a big yard to ride out and see how they work.
“I rang Noel Meade, asked ‘could I go in and ride out’ – and six weeks later Paul Carberry broke his leg, and that was it. It was a case of being in the right place at the right time.”
Last season Flanagan enjoyed his best campaign, with 59 winners in Ireland. There have been 45 so far this term for prize-money just shy of 1 million euro.
“You don’t half appreciate what you have when you didn’t have it for a long time,” he said.
“I haven’t had that many goes at Cheltenham. Last year was the first year. I was blessed I got to ride in the championship races – and I was fourth in the Champion Hurdle, fourth in the Ryanair, fourth in the Gold Cup.
“I go there a bit older and wiser this year, and we will see how we go.”