The label of ‘Most Popular Cromwell in Ireland’ might ordinarily be regarded as damning with faint praise but Espoir D’Allen’s surprise Unibet Champion Hurdle success at Cheltenham on Tuesday had his trainer engulfed in popular goodwill.
Co Meath based Gavin Cromwell’s contact with champions had once been confined to shoeing horses trained by his friend Gordon Elliott, including the Gold Cup hero Don Cossack.
Training was mostly a part-time adjunct to Cromwell’s farriery business, a job keeping his head above financial water to allow him continue preparing a small string for occasional victories that included an Irish Cambridgeshire in 2014.
However, back to back Grade One wins with the JP McManus-owned Jer’s Girl began a reversal of priorities. Shoeing took more of a back seat. Last year Cromwell’s versatile talent saw him win a Welsh Grand National and a Longchamp Group Two on the flat over Arc weekend.
But on Tuesday, and on jump racing’s greatest stage, Espoir D’Allen completed Cromwell’s remarkable rise to the summit of the sport.
“He’s been winning Grade Threes this year so to win this is fantastic. I’m shell-shocked to win. But to win like that – I’m just lost for words,” the 43-year-old said afterwards. He wasn’t alone.
The opening day feature was supposed to be confined to the top three guns in the betting but as one by one they got spiked, Espoir D’Allen swept through under jockey Mark Walsh to record a resounding 15-length win over last year’s runner-up Melon, with the 80-1 outsider Silver Streak in third.
Any odds you like would have been available beforehand about any of the trio of Laurina, Apple’s Jade and Buveur D’Air not making the frame. However, one by one the trio of supposed big guns fell away.
In the case of the dual champion Buveur D’Air it was literally a fall. Barry Geraghty’s mount crashed out at the third flight and brought down Laurina’s stable companion Sharjah. It wasn’t long after that Apple’s Jade started struggling, the 7-4 favourite beaten at the top of the hill.
With her stable companion Melon cutting out the pace, the stage looked set for Laurina. On the back of Willie Mullins’s two Grade One victories earlier on the card it looked near inevitable. But remarkably she too started to struggle and suddenly Espoir D’Allen was in front and cruising.
Very much JP McManus’s second-string behind Buveur D’Air, it was nevertheless the little five-year-old who gave his legendary owner an unprecedented eighth Champion Hurdle success.
“I was riding for a place and we got a place – first place!” beamed Walsh, a vital if notably low-key part of the McManus empire who was enjoying the greatest success of his career.
“For a five-year-old to do that against what we thought was one of the best Champion Hurdle fields for the past few years is unbelievable,” added Walsh.
“I was just behind Barry when he fell and luckily I wasn’t in his way. I just travelled everywhere. I was delighted the rain came this morning because he goes so well on it. And Gavin’s done a great job getting him here.”
Cromwell was inevitably the focus. Having first taken out a licence in 2005, been largely confined to the sort of small string familiar to many of his training colleagues, and having to juggle jobs to make ends meet, there was widespread delight at his finest moment in the sport.
It put a seal on a remarkable transformation considering racing’s elite level is increasingly portrayed as the preserve of a tiny few. It isn’t long since the most distinctive thing about Cromwell was his name, although it’s never been that notable from the area around Skryne and Ardcath.
“There have been generations of us there. After that I can’t tell you more. I’m not big on family trees. But we’re there a long time,” Cromwell told The Irish Times just over three years ago when Jer’s Girl was starting to make waves.
Since then the waves he’s made across the codes have got bigger and bigger. So on the opening day of Cheltenham 2019 it was a tidal wave of Irish joy for Cromwell.