Thursday, November 4, 2010

The name’s Bolger


The name’s Bolger

By Stephen Dwyer

1997 was the year Tony McCoy won the Cheltenham Gold Cup aboard Mr. Mulligan. It was also the year that Cockney Lad won the Irish Champion Hurdle and a season before Istabraq would start winning that same race an unheralded four straight times. As racing seasons go, it was a notable one, yet above all else the racing staff at The Independent lauded the performance of trainer and jockey Enda Bolger’s Risk Of Thunder in the La Touche Cup. Not mincing their words, journalists heralded it as “the finest display of athleticism any racecourse will see this year.”

The reason for the praise was simple; Risk Of Thunder had just completed a hat-trick in the La Touche and had made a mockery of Punchestown’s twisting cross-country course. This was no easy task given the challenge of the race. The La Touche Cup is Ireland’s most unique horse race; it is run over 33 furlongs, (4 miles 1 furlong in old money) and includes 30 fences. Among the collection of obstacles are giant Aintree fences, drop banks, log fences, an up-and-over double bank, native birch rolls and the etymologically-named Tommy’s Hedge and Ruby’s Double. Along with the Velka Pardubicka, it is one of the longest horse races in Europe, winning three in a row couldn’t have been easy. By the time he retired, Risk Of Thunder had won seven of them.

Former James Bond, Sean Connery bought the gelding on the spot when he saw him wining one of his La Touche races. From that point on, he would race in the colours of the Scottish Saint Andrew’s Cross, the famous Azure and White saltire.

Despite the fondness of a certain Mr. Bond, it is a misnomer to say that Risk Of Thunder was an absolute top-class horse, he regularly made mistakes in handicap chases and although he once finished fourth in the Irish Grand National and second in the Velka Pardubice Chase the same year, he reigned supreme in cross country races. By Strong Gale, the vast majority of his 18 career wins (12) would be at Punchestown partnered by regular riders Ken Whelan or trainer/jockey combination Enda Bolger.

Indeed Bolger is easily the most gifted cross-country trainer in Ireland and the UK, even managing to string together ten consecutive victories in The La Touche. He would also train winners in Garde Champetre, Spot Thedifference and Good Step and is unsurpassed in the Cheltenham banks races. Originally from Graiguenamanagh in Co. Kilkenny, he cut his teeth riding 413 point-to-point winners. It was with Risk Of Thunder that he made his name as a cross-country specialist trainer and the partnership’s record in the race will be matchless for some time to come.

On a side note, The La Touche Cup at the Punchestown has now become part of a new European Series of ten races called the Crystal Cup. This series is run in six different countries – France, Belgium, Italy, The Czech Republic, Britain and Ireland, it has a combined prize fund of over €700,000. The most successful stable at the end of the series will win the Crystal Cup and collect an additional €10,000.

I know who my money is on, with the Crystal Cup in hand; Enda Bolger will be smiling like a Kilkenny cat.

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