Fleming out to plunder Punchestown following Cheltenham conquest
David Jennings talks to a trainer out for more big-race success
There is no better place for a plan to come together than at Cheltenham and the nightcap at the end of day one never tasted so sweet for Alan Fleming after Tully East gave him his first festival winner in the Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase.
Cheltenham has been conquered, now it is time to plunder a big prize at Punchestown and Fleming has his sights set on Thursday's pigsback.com Nick Coen Memorial Handicap Chase for his most prized possession.
Getting into the Cheltenham race was an achievement in itself given horses rated between 137-140 got to run and Fleming found the perfect horse in Tully East to execute his plan.
Tully East had finished fourth in the previous year's Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle, ensuring he had some crucial course experience and the form of his beginners' chase win in December had worked out well – two subsequent efforts in a Grade 1 at Leopardstown and a Grade 3 at Navan gave him some invaluable chasing experience. The man on board, Denis O'Regan, had lots of festival experience too.
All the pieces of the jigsaw were there and they came together brilliantly for a day that Fleming will never forget.
"It was tremendous. I actually never thought it would happen and it took a while for it to sink in," says Fleming who first hit the headlines with star hurdler Starluck in the last decade.
"It was a balancing act. That race is so tight and only horses rated below 140 got into it. We knew we needed to be in the high 130s and, when he got his Irish mark, the race was staring us in the face. These things always work out in your head but when they work out in reality it is a tremendous feeling."
Tully East was ridden with confidence by O'Regan. He needed to be nimble to avoid the fall of Foxtail Hill at the eighth fence and was almost brought down by Burtons Well at the next. He somehow managed to avoid both of those and the turn of foot he showed after the last prompted many to describe him as a graded horse in a handicap.
But Fleming has resisted the temptation of pitching him into Grade 1 level for the Ryanair Novice Chase this week and instead sticks to the €65,000, 2m handicap on Thursday.
Fleming says: "I suppose we could have had a go at a Grade 1 but we thought it would be better to keep climbing the ladder in handicaps. He is maturing, growing all the time and has plenty of ability. He's a tough, honest, pacy type who is a very quick jumper. When you put all those things together you have a very, very good horse.
"I'm delighted for Barry [Connell, owner]. He invests a lot of time and money in the game and has been very good to me. I was over the moon for him that Tully East went and won at Cheltenham. He deserved a day like that more than anyone."
For many Cheltenham winners, the festival exertions take so much out of them that success at other spring festivals is often a bridge too far. But Fleming has issued an upbeat bulletin on his stable star and says he has never been in better shape.
He says: "He's a very easy horse to train. He enjoys life and has a super temperament – he's a trainer's dream. Denis sat on him the other day and he was thrilled with him. Tom Doran rides him out every morning and could not be any happier with him either. He's in a great frame of mind right now and he looks amazing.
"You never know how much Cheltenham has taken out of a horse but he certainly seems in great shape and we're really looking forward to Thursday. He's won over hurdles at Punchestown and the track should be perfect for him."
Cheltenham celebrations thanks to Tully East were more about relief than anything else for Fleming, who admits his the season as a whole has not gone as he would have liked.
He says: "It has been frustrating but these things happen. We have some lovely young horses who should do well next season so hopefully the future is bright. Barry is a great man to have backing you and we are very optimistic about next season."
Fleming might already be looking forward to next season but there is still some unfinished business to take care of this campaign and victory for Tully East would see him conclude the campaign on the best possible note.