The Cheltenham Festival in 2023 begun with an impressive success for Marine Nationale (9-2) in the Grade One Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
Partnered by 23 year old amateur Michael O’Sullivan, who graduated last year from University College Dublin with a degree in animal science, the six year old was delivered with a perfectly-timed challenge to overhaul 9/4 Favourite Facile Vega after the final flight before going on to score by three and three-quarter lengths.
Winning jockey Michael O’Sullivan said: “It went quite nicely really. We jumped off and I thought we went quite quick to the first then we steadied up and we went steady enough but that suited me as my horse is quick. I found myself in a nice position, perhaps a bit wider than I would have liked, but I was happy with the room as he hasn’t got a lot of experience.
“I followed Facile Vega and he jumped very well and travelled very well. At the bottom of the hill, I was just holding on and saving him. Paul (Townend) had kicked on Facile Vega but I was happy that he would come back to me. He had a good look at the last and popped over it. He actually won very snuggly.
“He is better on better ground and it was an unbelievable performance. He is not even having a blow there. I suppose when I saw the weather this morning it was drying out and I was hoping his ability would get him through and it did. It wasn’t as bad as Fairyhouse and I was quietly confident in the horse’s ability and he did show that. His jumping is going to get better and he didn’t really put a foot wrong but he was still hanging in the air. He wasn’t as quick through the air as I would like over two miles but I think on better ground he would be. He is a very good jumper and he is clever with his feet.
“He is a really intelligent horse in general. If you see him walking around the parade ring you would say he is at home. He is just an amazing horse and I’m so lucky to be involved in him. You could talk to him he is so smart. I’ve been dreaming of this day since I was a kid. I suppose it is surreal and it won’t sink in. This year has been so good. I suppose it is hard to appreciate it and it is hard to be topped but I’m enjoying every minute of it. I was coming here with a good book of rides and to win the first one it takes the pressure off. The horse is incredible and it is ebay riding a horse like that with plenty of confidence. We didn’t go overly quick. I was in a fine position and we were comfortable. I’m very lucky to be on his back.
“I’ve been riding in races since I was very young so I’ve plenty of experience and I’m confident enough in my own ability without being over-confident and I’m riding good horses for good people and that makes it a lot easier. You could nearly say the Supreme is the biggest race of the week as it is the first - I’m very lucky and it is a great thrill.”
Winning owner-trainer Barry Connell said: “How do you think it feels? Best feeling of all time! I put a lot of pressure on myself, saying he was the best horse I’ve ever had. He’s very, very quick. He’s unlike any other horse we’ve had before - they were mainly stayers, the G1 horses - this is a quick horse, he’s probably a G1 horse on the Flat, and we might get around to that at some stage. But today was his day. He’s had five runs and won all five. His jockey is a superstar. My staff are the best staff anywhere in the world - they’ve made the whole operation and I’d like to say a fantastic thanks to all the staff.
“I put huge pressure on myself. I came over on the boat and every Irish person was on the boat. I told them all to back the two horses, I said they were the two best novice horses in Ireland, so at least I’m off the hook, partially. Or I would have had to put on a disguise going home if we’d got beat!
“We’ve got about 25 horses at home riding out, and another 15 in the system, so maybe about 40 in total. A lot of them are young horses; we’re a start-up operation and we’ve only had the licence two and a half years. We bought the farm five years ago and put the facilities and staff in place, and it’s only this year it’s beginning to bear fruit. About half the yard haven’t run yet. This one is a six-year-old, the guy tomorrow is a seven-year-old. We give them plenty of time; they are big units, you can’t rush them, you have to let them come to you, and we’re absolutely blessed to have found the next superstar of the weighing-room in Michael O’Sullivan. You mark his name. Did you ever see a cooler ride in Cheltenham? Unbelievable.
“I’vw been talking this horse up because it’s what we’re seeing it at home, the bits of work they’re doing, what he’s shown in his bumpers. The Royal Bond didn’t work out for him - it went against him, and the one thing we learnt in the Royal Bond is what he finds off the bridle, because he was never off the bridle in his life before. He put his neck down, the jockey didn’t panic, gathered him up and got him balanced. Look, he’s got every attribute you want. I’ve said before, if you want to win a G1 in Cheltenham, you need four attributes. You need a quick horse - it’s an undulating track, a tight track, and you want to be able to hold his position. You want to be a very good jumper. You want a very good temperament, which he has, you saw him walking round the paddock like a sheepdog beforehand. Plus you need guts, stamina to stay up the hill, and he’s got all them in spades.
“I enjoy it [training horses as well as owning them] about 150% more. I rode into the winner’s enclosure here twice at the November meeting, and winning as an owner pales into insignficance besides that. This is unreal because all year round I enjoy the process of getting out of the car in the morning and just being with the horses. I love being with the horses, going round the yard, going out on to the gallops, talking to the staff. This is the icing on the cake. The whole process is what I love, you know. It really energises me. I source all these horses and have a staff of 11 people - they are exceptional, and I hope we are only just beginning the journey now.
“I think we’ll come back here for the Arkle next year. Those are my initial thoughts at this period in time, but today is for enjoying today. He’s put him out in a field and then make an entry for Punchestown.
“I got him from Sam Curling during Covid. He had him as a young horse and was going to run him point to points but all the point to points were called off, so we got one of our riders to ride him, liked him and bought him.
“He’s got a funny pedigree - his sire French Navy is in India now. We made an enquiry about getting him back, but I don’t think the owner wants to sell him.
“Michael O’Sullivan was champion novice point to point rider. He hasn’t come from the flapping pony racing field, he’s come from proper horsemen. And he’s a thinker, a very smart guy. He’s got his university degree already. He’s 23, he’s not a kid, and I have no problem him not being able to claim - he doesn’t need his claim. I never thought in any circumstances about putting a more experienced jockey on. If you gave me any jockey, I wouldn’t swap him.”
Sam Twiston-Davies (Rare Edition, PU): “Disappointing, so pulled up safe and sound. There will be another day”
Rachael Blackmore (Inthepocket, 4th): “He ran very well, that was him today.”
Patrick Mullins (Diverge, 3rd): “Ran a cracker, settled really well, jumped super and stayed all the way to the line. The next time I’d probably ride him more forward, but lots to look forward to.”
1.30pm Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle (Grade 1) 2m 87y
1 Marine Nationale 9/2
2 Facile Vega 9/4F
3 Diverge 25/1
Distances: 3¼, 2¾
Time: 3m 59.69s
1st winner at The Festival for jockey Mr Michael O’Sullivan
1st winner at The Festival as a trainer for Barry Connell
3rd winner at The Festival as an owner for Barry Connell