Henry de Bromhead has fresh perspective on Cheltenham Festival after personal heartache
Henry de Bromhead will head into this year’s Cheltenham Festival with a different outlook on the sport and life in general following the most painful of years for him and his family.
The Co Waterford handler has firmly established himself as one of the sport’s elite trainers over the course of the past decade, regularly challenging the powerhouse yards of Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott for top honours on this side of the Irish Sea as well as enjoying huge success in the Cotswolds.
It is 13 years since De Bromhead first struck Festival gold in the 2010 Arkle with the popular Sizing Europe, who returned to Prestbury Park 12 months later to lift the Champion Chase.
Five winless years at Cheltenham followed, but De Bromhead rebuilt and strengthened to such an extent that in 2021 – at a Festival run behind closed doors due to the Covid pandemic – he became the first trainer in Festival history to complete the Champion Hurdle-Champion Chase-Gold Cup treble with Honeysuckle, Put The Kettle On and Minella Indo respectively.
Last year’s meeting brought further glory, with Honeysuckle successfully defending her Champion Hurdle crown and A Plus Tard giving him back-to-back Gold Cup wins under the record-breaking Rachael Blackmore. De Bromhead’s current tally of 18 Festival wins puts him comfortably in the top 10 current trainers.
And yet all he has achieved pales into insignificance compared to the heartbreak endured since last year’s meeting, after his beloved 13-year-old son Jack was killed in a pony racing accident in September.
It goes without saying there will not be a more popular success over the course of the four days if at least one of the De Bromhead runners powers up the famous hill in front.
“You’re still under pressure (going to Cheltenham) and I wouldn’t say it’s easier because we’ve been there and done it – it’s still tough,” he said.
“I suppose the year I’ve had would put a lot of things into perspective in life. The support we get is incredible.
“We’ve had a couple of great years at Cheltenham recently, but we’ll always take one winner – and then when you’ve had one you want another one.
“Our ‘Galacticos’ as you could nearly call them are getting older and as we all know, it’s a very tough place to win, but there’s plenty of nice horses coming through and we’re looking forward to it.”
De Bromhead expects to have “between 16 and 20” runners at this year’s Festival, with the ‘Galactico’ trio of A Plus Tard, Minella Indo and Honeysuckle once again front and centre.
A Plus Tard was an astonishing 15-length winner of the Gold Cup last season, but will return for this year’s renewal with questions to answer following a troubled campaign.
The nine-year-old was pulled up when defending the Betfair Chase at Haydock in November – and with an eleventh hour setback ruling out an intended appearance in the Savills Chase at Leopardstown over the Christmas period, he has not been seen in competitive action since his listless effort on Merseyside.
“The season hasn’t gone according to plan for him, in fairness,” De Bromhead admitted.
“I can’t tell you how happy we were with him going to Haydock, but he just wasn’t right and we think and hope we found the reason.
“We thought we had him back right again going into Christmas and then he got this knock on the day of the race, which was really frustrating, but sometimes these things happen for a reason.
“You would love to have had another run under his belt, but we didn’t and we’re well able to get him ready and all I can tell you is he’s mighty now and we’ll try to get him there as good as we can.
“It hasn’t been an ideal preparation obviously, but we know how good he was last year – he was the third best winner of the Gold Cup in the last 40 years they said afterwards – and I don’t believe he’s lost that.”
Minella Indo is perhaps lacking the ‘X-factor’ of his stablemate, but saw him off in the 2021 Gold Cup and was best of the rest, albeit well beaten, 12 months ago.
He also run just once this season, narrowly beating subsequent Irish Gold Cup runner-up Stattler at Tramore on New Year’s Day, and De Bromhead feels he saves his very best efforts for Cheltenham.
He added: “Every time you go there with him, you’d always be defending his form. When he won the Albert Bartlett we went as a maiden and before he finished second in the RSA he’d just got over the line in a beginners’ chase at Navan, but he’s an incredible horse and he just loves Cheltenham.
“He’s a 10-year-old now and he’s a bit older, but he was still second in the race last year and he’s a previous winner.
“We plotted a different route this year, literally starting with
the Gold Cup and working backwards.
“It was a great run in Tramore. It was lovely to see him win and it was a very emotional day for us as well, which was brilliant.
“I know stats could be against him a bit, but he’s in mighty form.”
Honeysuckle needs no introduction after an unbeaten run of 16 straight races including a hat-trick of Festival wins, with victory in the Mares’ Hurdle preceding her successive Champion Hurdle triumphs.
Kenny Alexander’s pride and joy has lost her aura of invincibility this season, though, after being beaten in both the Hatton’s Grace and the Irish Champion Hurdle and as a result connections have decided to revert to the Mares’ Hurdle rather than bid for a Champion hat-trick.
“She ran really well in the Irish Champion, your man (State Man) was just better than her and that was it,” said De Bromhead.
“You’ve got Constitution Hill over there and State Man looked very good here and my job is to find the race that we’ve the best chance of winning.
“I’m not saying we’re going to win the Mares’ Hurdle, but I’d think it’s fair to say that we’d have a better chance of winning that than the Champion Hurdle.”
For all the trainer would love to secure a third Gold Cup and see Honeysuckle raise the roof once more, perhaps the race that would evoke the most emotion were De Bromhead to win it is the Ryanair Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle, which will this year carry the name of his late son.
It is no forlorn hope either, with Magical Zoe having been saved for the Grade Two contest ever since impressing at Down Royal in early November.
De Bromhead added: “Michael [O’Leary] very kindly named the race after Jack and hopefully we’ll have a couple for it.
“Magical Zoe has done very little wrong. She was only a four-year-old at the start of the season and we didn’t want to keep forcing it with her, so we made the decision after Down Royal to put her away and take our chance going there fresh.”