Royal Kahala set for big run at Cheltenham

Royal Kahala runs in the Grade 2 Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham, one group of people will be squinting harder at their television set than any other.

The six-year-old is owned by the Winning Ways Starlet Syndicate, who came together to buy the filly back in 2019 before seeing her shoot to stardom in the last six months in Peter Fahey’s care.

Since finishing second in her first outing at Naas a year ago, she has gone from strength to strength. It all culminated in a red-hot run at Fairyhouse with three consecutive victories either side of the new year, including beating Willie Mullins’ Hook Up in the Mares Hurdle in the first week of the 2021.  

Second to Roseys Hollow last time out in the Mares Novice put an end to that winning streak, but syndicate manager Oran Crean will be praying his prized possession is saving her best for the Festival. 

“We hope that she can carry that over to Cheltenham, it’s a demanding track but if she goes with pace and she’s in her comfort zone then we believe she can run a great race,” Crean said.

“Beating Hook Up was a major transition, where she moved up into the premier division, and that’s when we knew we had a very good horse.

“But Cheltenham is Cheltenham, it’s very competitive and very hard to get a win there.

“It’s a great experience to have a horse good enough to go over, and I just hope she runs a race over there, and whatever happens after that will happen.”

Crean has already enjoyed some great days at Prestbury Park, twice tasting success at the festival with plucky Brave Inca – who won the Supreme in 2004 and the Champion Hurdle under AP McCoy in 2006.

That was just the start with Royal Kahala proof his decision to head back into the market was an overwhelming success.

Fillies used to be oft-overlooked but the recent success of Honeysuckle and, in Britain, Epatante prove there’s nothing like a dame.

“We had been buying geldings throughout the years, but they just got too expensive, so we pivoted to fillies and saw some value there, you get so much more bang for your buck.” Crean said.

“You go to the sales with forty grand, you’re buying in the top 10 or 15% there, but if you go with that much for a gelding and you’re in midfield somewhere in terms of what you can buy.

“There’s certain things Peter looks for in a horse, it’s like wine. I can tell the difference between a good wine and a bad wine, but the stuff in the middle is very subtle, and unless you’re a connoisseur it’s very hard to tell the difference.

“It’s the same with horses, there are small little things with horses that will attract a trainer, and they all look at something different.”

As well as visits to the stables to see the progress of Royal Kahala with Fahey in County Kildare, all members of the syndicate have a say in everything that happens with the filly.

That culminated in a Zoom conference last weekend to decide whether or not to compete on the sport’s biggest stage at Cheltenham, which was swiftly sorted within an hour, and Crean admits transparency is what makes the group tick.

“The most important thing is choice and democracy, and letting the syndicate members decide,” the full-time accountant said.  

“I knew that it was an important decision about whether we went to Cheltenham or Fairyhouse for the Grade 1, but all I can do is set out the pros and cons of both.

“I gave each syndicate member the time to speak up and give their own views, because everybody has something to add and has their own insight.

“This isn’t a dictatorship, no one wants to be told where their horse is running, we talk all the options through for an hour, and that’s the best way to do it.”

Syndicate member Emmet Walsh testifies to that, having partnered with Crean for Hugh Burns’ Court Tycoon before getting back involved with Royal Kahala.

A horse lover who used to skip school to watch the biggest races, Walsh knows just how much victory would mean in the Cotswolds next week, although he’ll be hiding behind the sofa.

“It would have always been the dream to have a runner at Cheltenham, so it’s really exciting that we are in this position now,” the 41-year-old said.  

“Back when she won her Maiden Hurdle in November, a friend of mine sent me a screenshot of her being quoted at 33/1 for Cheltenham, and at that stage it felt like pie in the sky stuff.

“When she won her bumper, I was moving from foot to foot in front of the telly, so there’ll definitely be butterflies and massive excitement, my wife probably won’t want to be around me.

“I won’t be sleeping between now and then!”

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