Favourite Absainte initiated the opening leg of a double for reigning champion jockey Barry O’Neill, when taking the Maddybenny five-year-old mares’ maiden at Portrush on Saturday.
The daughter of Saints Des Saints, who is a half-sister to three winners including eight-time winner Sir Note, had finished second at Loughanmore two weeks previous. Carrying the colours of the Smile Says It All Syndicate which consists of John Hegarty, proprietor of the Royal Court Hotel in Portrush, as well as Howard McIlwaine, Wilbert George and Samuel Hanna from Saintfield, the grey mare was forced to dig deep to fend off Questionation by a neck.
Winning owner Howard McIlwaine commented: “Tony (Martin, trainer) is in Leopardstown today but we have him to thank for this. She was narrowly beaten at Loughanmore a few weeks ago and finally she had got her head in front. I don’t know where we will head next, we will talk to talk to the trainer”.
O’Neill was fortunate to secure a double, as the Neil McKnight-trained One Cool Clarkson was a fortunate victor in the in the Ulster Stores winners’ of three. Second in the corresponding race 12-months ago, the three-time winner was left in front when the short-priced favourite, Captain CJ, came down at the second-last whilst travelling powerfully in his bid to continue his winning streak. That good fortune for the Clerkenwell gelding allowed him to return six lengths clear over Celtic Thunder.
“That was a great run. He doesn’t owe us anything and is a proper fun horse,” reported the winning trainer. “My wife Christine owns him, so we will see how he is after that run and then look to go to open company next”.
Jockey Mark O’Hare got his first winner of the season aboard the Karen McNeilly-trained Shumaker in the Drenagh Sawmills five-year-old geldings’ maiden, as the trio combined to gain compensation for a final fence mishap at the same venue in March.
Travelling well to lead from the penultimate fence, the progressive gelding quickened clear of his rivals to run out an easy 10 length winner over Some Response.
“He has tended to jump out to the left in the past and Karen Ferris has been doing some work on him and he seems to have improved so I have her to thank for that. He is such a good wee horse so he deserved to get his day. I think he could go back to the track now”, reported his winning handler McNeilly who enjoyed success with Benatar at Loughbrickland last November.
The opening race of the day, the Dennison Commercials LTD four-year-old maiden, which produced Grade 1 winner Finian’s Oscar 12 months previous, went to the Gavin Cromwell-trained Weakfield.
By the progressive sire in Court Cave, this eye-catching gelding, who is a half-brother to Irish Cambridgeshire winner in Sretaw, made steady progress into the race and after challenging the long-time leader before the final fence, he battled strongly on the run-in to see off Brace Yourself by three quarters of a length.
Ger Fox representing Gavin Cromwell commented: “Gavin really thinks a lot of this horse and he is one of the nicest four-year-olds that we have in training. We really thought he would be hard to beat today. I don’t know what the plan is now but he could be for sale”.
The Jim Dreaper yard, who enjoyed success in opens last season with Cavite Beta and Grand Jesture, got their opening winner of the season in the Royal Court Hotel Open with Sizing Coal who was guided to success by Derek O’Connor.
The Alan Potts-owned gelding was having his first run since March when he finished second to Roi Des Francs at Down Royal. Ridden patiently throughout, the former two-time track winner disputed the lead at the penultimate fence and kept on gamely in the closing stages to see off Sabremont by a neck at the finish.
“I’m delighted with that, they went a good clip in the ground and I thought he might have been a bit short of work but he has a bit of class. He had a nasty fall at Aintree last year so we thought we would come back to points as a confidence booster and he is also high enough in the ratings on the track. Derek said he did it well and he will be a better horse again the next day. I’m not sure what the plan is now, I will have to speak with the owners”, reported Tom Dreaper, son of the winning trainer.
The Larne-based yard of Stuart Crawford also claimed their first success of the new pointing season when Ballyhowne took the Fletcher Torrens & Semple & Sons Ltd six-year-old-and-upwards geldings’ maiden. Second on his debut at Loughanmore in 2016 before running on the track for most of last season, the Billie-Jo Irwin-owned gelding ran out a one length winner over Military Road with the winning handler’s brother, Ben, in the saddle.
“It’s great to see him recording his first win as he could have picked up a few races before now”, remarked the winner trainer. “He is a horse with plenty of ability and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him improving and winning another few races. We will probably keep him pointing in the near future”.