Irish handler Peter Maher enjoyed the biggest success of his training career when Big Shu captured the Glenfarclas Cross Country Handicap Chase at last year’s Festival.
“It took a while to sink it but it feels great to be a Cheltenham Festival-winning trainer,” said Maher. “I knew Big Shu was a good horse and you can’t beat a good horse – class always wins doesn’t it?”
Maher, who is based at Ashfield Stud in Co Kildare, was saddling his first runner at The Festival, but it was not the first time his family have been associated with a Festival winner.
“My grandfather trained plenty of winners and was a big bloodstock man in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. He stood stallions and they were responsible for the likes of L’Escargot, who obviously won two Gold Cups and a Grand National.
“The stallions also sired Mr Mulligan and Forgive ‘N Forget, who both won the Gold Cup, Maid Of Money, Bankers Benefit and Barney Burnett. Team Spirit was another one and there were five Grand National winners in total, so I used to listen to all the stories when I was growing up.”
Big Shu started his career with Mark McNiff, but had five starts in bumpers without success between March, 2009 and December, 2010. The nine-year-old made his debut for Maher in a point-to-point in October, 2011, and continued in that sphere and in hunter chases.
Despite these humble beginnings, he sprung to prominence at the 2012 Punchestown Festival when annexing the Ladies Cup over the cross-country course and then warmed up for Cheltenham with a second to Arabella Boy over the same course and distance in February, 2013.
Big Shu was sent off a 14/1 chance at The Festival and travelled smoothly throughout, before staying on strongly up the hill under Barry Cash to beat fellow Irish raider Shakervilz by four lengths.
“Big Shu did it well on the day. He has plenty of stamina and staying is the name of the game,” reflected Mayer. “Unusually, they went a good gallop and it might not have been the same result had there been a crawl.”
Following his victory at Cheltenham, Big Shu captured the La Touche Cup at the Punchestown Festival and is on course to defend his title in the Glenfarclas Cross Country Handicap Chase following a pleasing second on his reappearance at Punchestown on 2 February. He is also entered in the Crabbie’s Grand National, in which he has been allotted 10st 8lb.
Maher continued: “It doesn’t matter what you do with him at home, he always improves for a run. I am leaning towards Cheltenham with him, but he could do the Grand National as well.
“Silver Birch ran down the field at Cheltenham and then won the Grand National so the double is doable. Big Shu didn’t run over Christmas and, if he went to Aintree, it would only be his third run of the season.
“I suppose we are the one to beat going back to Cheltenham this year, but favourites get turned over in Cheltenham. I got my winner last year and it was foreign territory for me, but this year I know what I’m doing and want to enjoy it. I will come over with a couple of friends, have a nice meal and watch the racing, and whatever happens, happens.”