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Mouse Morris enjoyed his first Cheltenham Festival success in 1974. He rode Mr Midland to win the National Hunt Chase for Edward O’Grady. It was O’Grady’s first victory too. That’s 50 years ago, half a century, semicentennial if you’re being fancy, or “a f***ing long time ago” if you’re Morris.

“Do I get a double pension for that!” he quips when reminded of the landmark. He’s kidding because pension smacks of retirement and Morris is anything but retired. A couple of generations later he’s still operating at the festival coalface, readying the lively outsider Gentlemansgame for Friday’s Cheltenham Gold Cup.

He doesn’t want to talk too much about the grey’s chances because he gets superstitious at this time of the year. Months of meticulous preparation can be kiboshed with one funny step so there’s no percentage in tempting the fates. And what’s the point of getting older unless you got a little wiser, especially on the back of what constitutes, by any measure, an epic racing life.

It’s a lot more than half a century since anyone has called him Michael. Almost as soon as the public school-educated son of the former Olympic Committee chairman Lord Killanin decided he wanted to be a jockey, he got his nickname decided for him in the hurly-burly of yard work. It’s an instantly recognisable racing moniker. So, at 72, given a shot, presumably he’d have the same again please.

“Between the price of land, price of building, price of horses, I would hate to be starting out now,” he quickly announces. “I never wanted to train. It was never my intention. It just kind of happened. But in those days, you could talk to a bank manager, a fella would take a chance with you; now you can’t find one to talk to. These days if you don’t tick the boxes, good luck.”

The unintentional training began in 1980. There was little other option for a crocked ex-jockey. He’d been good too, including riding Skymas to win the Champion Chase back-to-back (1976-77.) Training has evolved, generated a lot of stress, but also five more decades of the annual fascination that is Cheltenham, now a very different beast too to the one Morris and O’Grady ventured into first.

“A winner at Cheltenham was a great feat, a great honour. And racing people who only attended the meeting really enjoyed it and appreciated it. But it had zero razzmatazz because razzmatazz didn’t exist in those days,” O’Grady recalls. “It could pass you by if you weren’t into racing,” Morris admits.

There’s no danger of that now. Even those most indifferent to racing know something special happens on the side of a Gloucestershire hill next week. The publicity machine makes sure of it. What was once an annual gathering of rural tweedy and wide-boy punters, where Irish success was prized as an exception rather than the rule, is slotted firmly into the corporate calendar.

It’s just 15 years since O’Grady was Ireland’s most successful trainer there. Through leaner financial times he maintained the legacy of Vincent O’Brien and Tom Dreaper with 18 festival winners, none more spectacular than the ill-fated Golden Cygnet in 1978. Like his former jockey, O’Grady is still in the racing trenches, fighting an unequal fight against vastly more powerful opposition.

Willie Mullins passed out O’Grady’s tally in 2011. The festival’s transformation since then is underlined by how he needs just six more victories next week to reach a once scarcely imaginable Cheltenham century of winners. With Gordon Elliott in support, Irish runners could outnumber the home team for the first time ever next week.

“I didn’t think I’d ever see the day when a fella [Mullins] would have 70 runners from one stable. I certainly couldn’t have envisaged that. It’s an extraordinary thought,” O’Grady says.

“In the old days, a big owner had four or five horses. Now, there’s a bundle of them with 30 plus. They can afford it and they’re great for their trainers. It’s not right or wrong, it’s just different.”

Morris has never had more than 35 horses in his entire yard, numbers that make it remarkable how the Champion Hurdle is the only championship race at Cheltenham he hasn’t won. Buck House took the Champion Chase (1986), Trapper John the Stayers (1990) and best of all, War Of Attrition landed the 2006 Gold Cup. The numbers though increasingly don’t add up.

“It’s a factory job now. It’s a losing battle if you don’t have the numbers. You can’t blame the lads, fair play to them,” he says.

Just as it always has been, the key ingredient is the financial clout that top owners bring to those who they support.

“I think it’s a bit simplistic to say if you win in the sales ring, you win on the track; but at the same time, it’s nearly there.”

Perseverance has been necessary over the years, paying off spectacularly at times. First Lieutenant in 2011 was the last of Morris’s seven festival winners. But within a dozen days in 2016, there was an Irish and English Grand National double with Rogue Angel and Rule The World. That it occurred less than a year after the accidental death of his 30-year-old son ‘Tiffer’ due to carbon monoxide poisoning made it poignant enough to reckon even more with fate.

In 2017, tragedy struck O’Grady when his wife Maria was fatally injured in a hunting accident, the sort of blow to put racing angst about the outlook for its greatest shop-window event into stark perspective. Nevertheless, the festival has shaped so much of his professional life that he does care about its future.

“The fact that it is four days has diluted the racing enormously, which is terribly sad. When Northern Game won the Triumph Hurdle [1984] there were 30 runners in it. Now you get very few runners in the Triumph because you get them in the Boodles instead.

“You have a couple of brilliant mares that could, may even still, run in the Champion Hurdle. But in those days that is where they would have had to go. They didn’t have another option when it was three days, and it was absolutely brilliant.

“It has watered down the competition fiercely which I think is sad for racing and sad for the racing public. It’s less exciting because it’s not as competitive as it can be,” O’Grady believes.

The irony is that such dilution has coincided with much of the season getting reduced to little more than an appetiser for what a growing number believe to be an increasingly unsatisfactory main course. Timing it right for Cheltenham has become the ultimate gauge, a juggle that Constitution Hill’s absence from the Champion Hurdle confirms comes with risks.

It weaves too into other threads that involve increasing concerns about too many good horses being in too few hands, as well as the once unimaginable concept of Ireland being almost too dominant for the festival’s own good. O’Grady points to how very different the National Hunt Chase is now compared to what it was when Mr Midland won.

“You could have run Barry Connell’s horse [Marine Nationale] in the National Hunt Chase now if you wanted to. Back then it was for horses that were maidens under every rule at the start of the season,” he says.

Mr Midland might have got lapped were he to line up today. Or he would be if able to get around. Morris recalls him as a horrible jumper.

“He would as easily divide a fence as jump it!” O’Grady admits. But on the day that counted he earned his niche in festival history, and for a couple of new kids not yet 25.

“We’d done a lot of work with him, and Mouse rode him, and we got a fantastic thrill out of it. At the time the prize for an ordinary race at home was about £203. When we came back, I said to the owner Barney Naughton – Mr Naughton to me – ‘you know if that horse was trained in England, there would be 10 per cent deducted for the trainer’. He said to me ‘weren’t you very lucky to have him!’ That was my handshake,” O’Grady laughs.

Mr Midland’s jockey remembers galloping past timber stands, a far cry from the commercial goldmine the festival has turned into on the back of its annual aspiration to identify the best of the best over jumps. So popular has it become that in some ways jumping’s position as flat racing’s poor relation has flipped on its axis. Plusses and minuses have come with that. After 50 years though, the festival’s allure still holds.

“We still get the buzz out of it. There’s more to racing than Cheltenham, but it’s still very, very big. I hate that phrase ‘it’s our Olympics’. But it is as good as,” Morris declares.

He will have 10 per cent of his yard lining up at the festival, including Foxy Jacks who could switch from the Cross-Country to the Pertemps Final if his trainer judges it worthwhile. Plenty will reckon on Gentlemansgame’s ‘Blue Riband’ chance despite the grey having had only three previous starts over fences.

As for Mr Midland, it is indeed a f***ing long time ago. Morris admits to pondering things a little more these days compared to when he was firing dodgy jumpers at a ditch. But the anniversary hadn’t even crossed his mind. “We don’t do nostalgia. We look forward to the future.”

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