It has to be one of the most startling stats of the jump-racing year: Denis O’Regan, for some time one of the sport’s highest-rated jockeys, had just one mount at its showpiece Cheltenham Festival.
The horse in question was Ardamir, a 12-1 shot that never managed to get in a blow before being pulled up in the Fred Winter Juvenile Novices Hurdle.
For the rest of the week, O’Regan – previously successful in the World Hurdle and Arkle Chase, and the winner of 50-plus races in six of the past eight seasons – had to get used to the unaccustomed role of spectator.
But the 34-year-old Irishman, who moved south from his County Durham-based job with the subsequently banned Howard Johnson in 2010, is hoping his luck may change at Aintree, where he is due to get the leg-up on leading Crabbies Grand National hope The Druids Nephew.
Twelve months ago, the Neil Mulholland-trained nine-year-old was in the lead when he fell at the fifth last on the famous 30-fence course. At the time, Leighton Aspell – on board winner Many Clouds – believed him to be the principal danger.
So both horse and rider have points to make.
In an interview to be broadcast during BBC Radio 5 live sports extra’s coverage from Newbury on Friday, O’Regan said: “Obviously Cheltenham was disappointing.
“It’s tough, but you’ve got to keep looking forward and I just hope that next year may be better.
“I don’t know the reason. Since I moved down south, it’s been a battle. I’ve found it hard to slot into one yard or get a constant supply [of mounts] but I’ve made changes this year – I’m not one to take anything lying down.
“I feel that’s definitely benefited me and made me feel like I’m moving forward.”
Those changes have included a switch of booking agent to join colleagues Sam Twiston-Davies and Noel Fehily at the accomplished Chris Broad agency, and a push towards making new contacts amongst bigger owners, who are more and more inclined to employ their own retained riders these days.
However, no amount of work by the Broad team, or schmoozing by the man himself, will do as much to raise the profile as victory on April 9 in the most famous horse race in the world.
Following a promising return from a three-month break at Doncaster in March – when ridden for the first time by O’Regan – The Druids Nephew is in the top five in the Aintree betting, along with Many Clouds, Silviniaco Conti, Holywell and The Last Samuri, the winner at Doncaster.
And regardless of his formbook entries, which include a Cheltenham Festival win, and credentials earned with that bold effort in 2015, the jockey believes the pair have one other advantage: familiarity.
He said: “The last three Nationals I’ve ridden in were late bookings, and so the first time I got on him was in the parade ring on Grand National day.
“So it’s a bit different this time, and a great help. I’ve had a chance to really get to know him. He’s not the biggest, but he knows where his feet are and he definitely has a good brain and the biggest thing with him is that he gave me the ‘feel’ of a horse with a lot of class.
“I thought as soon as we crossed the line at Doncaster that he would definitely benefit from the run, and is on his way to peak form for Aintree.
“It’s hard to get away from the fact that he was going really, really well in last year’s National. Whether he’d have stayed the journey is anyone’s guess, but with his ability if he jumps round, you’d have to think he’ll be a player.”
O’Regan’s own journey may also have involved something of a fall when going well, but it’s plain he too is determined to stay the course and be a player again.
- BBC Radio 5 live sports extra features live horse racing on Friday afternoons during March, April May