You can’t fake it at Cheltenham. You saw it in victory smiles all the way from the ecstatic triumph of AP McCoy, the enchanted delight of Katie Walsh , the beyond-the-clouds glory of Paddy Brennan to the unfazed wonderment of 17 year old Sam Twiston Davies. There was a lot more than self congratulation in those smiles. For they were rejoicing not just for themselves but for the horse beneath.
That was never clearer than after Binocular sprinted home with A.P. in the Champion Hurdle. Outsiders, and Cheltenham welcomes tens of thousands of them in person and hundreds of thousands on TV, might first have wondered why the man who had ridden so many winners could be quite so transported by another one. Then he reached the unsaddling enclosure and threw his arms not in the air but around Binocular’s neck. McCoy, the hardest man who ever lived, was hugging him like a lover.
And why not? If the world understands the bonding of players after a goal or a try is scored, how much closer is the sensation when a team mate has not just supplied the pass or made the tackle but has actually been a living part of what you do together. A jockey is no less than the top half of the centaur and you win together, lose together and, as A.P. was twice brutally reminded on Thursday, sometimes fall together.
McCoy is fuelled by his addiction to winning but he is also fired up by the unique sensation an equine superstar can give. Last year he thought he had found one in Binocular. All season he has been shaking his head over what was missing. On Tuesday we could see and he could feel that it was back with a vengeance, a performance of slick, spring-heeled hurdling that made the spirit soar. If the same horse turns up in 12 months time, next year’s Champion should be a repeat performance.
Walking back with Binocular to the washdown was to be told how physio Mary Bromley had finally diagnosed a degree of muscle binding in the top of his neck, and not just her treatment but ridden walks every evening in a bit-less bridle had been used to flex his head and become a wonder once more. The horse and jockey might be the centaur but a lot of others have input. Race after race reminded us of it right from the very beginning.
Dunguib might have been backed like a good thing in the opening Supreme Novices but punters seem to have ignored quite what Philip Fenton and Brian O’Connell had done to transform a wired-up box walker into such an awesome galloping machine. Unbeaten over hurdles he might be but he would be needed to be ridden from the back to get him to settle and kept wide to help his still faulty jumping. Of course Brian, with just 12 winners this season, would feel his brain being fried, but review the race as many times as you like and you will still have to accept that the horse just didn’t quite run well enough or jump well enough to deserve any better.
Reputations and starting prices are merely declarations of hope when the tapes go up as McCoy and JP McManus found out with Captain Cee Bee in the Arkle, and as Jimmy Nesbitt (the epitome of Festival chic in jeans, dark glasses and beautifully tailored tweed jacket) had to swallow with Riverside Theatre in the same race. What nothing but the race can prove is whether the equine player is at his peak.
Which Master Minded clearly wasn’t. At his best he is just about the most awesome two mile chaser, and certainly highest rated, that any of us have ever seen. He is trained by an expert who was satisfied that his athlete was in mint condition and yet once the race started he never really convinced. Even allowing for the ground (the only other time he ran on “good” ground was to get beaten by Voy Por Ustedes at Aintree) there was never the retina hitting excitement he can give at his best and which came through so strongly last time at Newbury.
Getting a horse to a peak is not only difficult but often becomes increasingly so and it was significant that in his comments afterwards Paul Nicholls did not discount the possibility that Master Minded might never hit his real greatness again. Which is as it should be ,and even before Master Minded blew out we had seen new names, albeit some with a familiar ring, promising much for the future. If Master Minded has indeed had his day, how bright are the prospects for Weapons Amnesty, Peddler’s Cross, Cue Card and indeed for the stunning Katie Walsh who stole everyone’s hearts when beating her future sister in law Nina Carberry in the opener?
Cue Card, at 40-1, was the biggest surprise but we may well remember his win in the bumper as the start of something big. He is only four, he won by eight lengths, he wasn’t even broken in until last Autumn, his only previous appearance was to sluice home at Fontwell and since his dam Wicked Crack was a good staying chaser in Ireland (although fell at the first in Bindaree’s National in her only run over here) he has every chance of going all the way. What a tribute to the father and son team of Colin and Joe Tizzard who was at that stage the first English born jockey to win at the Festival since Richard Johnson in the Supreme Novices.
Who knows, Cue Card may yet get the Cheltenham habit. Weapons Amnesty showed it against Long Run in the RSA Chase. Having won the Albert Bartlett last year, he was a great example of how important an aptitude for the course can be. Weapons Amnesty had form here, Long Run had it at Auteuil. When I last checked they were about as different as you could devise, Auteuil dead flat in the middle of Paris, Cheltenham set on the rolling edge of the timeless Cotswolds even if Paddy Power’s giant Hollywood hoarding temporarily thieved the backdrop and set the local council scouring the bye laws to ensure they outflank him next season.
Weapons Amnesty promises plenty, Peddlers Cross even more so – not just for himself but his trainer. In the four seasons since he finally took the licence (but not the famous lion transporting taxi licence) from his father Ginger, Donald McCain has increased his score every time and when Ballabriggs made it a festival double on the Thursday it was both his 69th winner of the term and the clearest indication yet that he has an operation that can handle the very highest level. That is certainly where the unbeaten Peddlers Cross is going and we can already smack our lips in anticipation of seeing both him and his defeated rival Reve de Sivola over fences next season.
With Katie Walsh we only had to wait 24 hours and there she was like some furious, dynamic, little doll launching the grey Thousand Stars up the run in to take the 28 runner County Hurdle. Of all the attractions Britain’s jumping showcase has for the media, not the least is that, unique amongst the major sports, amateurs can not only take part in major events, but as with Katie, can actually win them. And this week, as it happened, the world’s most powerful media figure was on hand to witness. Rupert Murdoch was at Prestbury Park.
Of course he was there first and foremost to watch his accomplished daughter Elizabeth ride in the ladies charity race on Thursday, but if Cheltenham had wanted to show what excitements they could offer they could have hardly scripted it better. And that was certainly the opinion of the most famous actor on the premises as Sir Tom Courtenay made his way to the Tote after putting £20 on Great Endeavour and watching with the most uncontained delight as the nice lady behind the counter kept counting and counting until there was a whopping £626 on the table. “Wait till I tell Albert,” chuckled Tom referring to that other acting legend Albert Finney who still keeps his father’s bookies board – “Albert Finney: Civility and Prompt Payment.”
By Friday there was still plenty of civility around but for many of us there was a sense of tightening tension that was not going to ease until the Gold Cup was over. It was mild when we walked up to the top of the course in the morning and the touch of overnight rain and the light watering had eased the drying effects of the previous three days. It was 8 am, the Gold Cup was not due off until 3-20 pm but already the mind raced with just how events might unfold when they reached this brow of the hill and McCoy launched Denman determined to make it hurt.
Anticipating great steeplechases brings excitement and an undeniable frisson of dread. At that moment the dread was uppermost and most of it was for Denman. As the years from actually risking one’s own neck recede you might think one got more bullish about other’s risking theirs – I find it very much the reverse. We knew that Carruthers would make it with Imperial Commander near him and with Kauto Star keeping (we assumed) effortless watch behind them. If Denman was to get his crown back his jockey would have to make him rumble. And after his crises of jumping confidence in two out of the last three races, how would the horse respond?
The fears of what might be were only exacerbated by the endless big screen showings of the Kauto – Denman promotion intercutting the pair in racing action with savage scenes from the Nigel Benn – Chris Eubank title fight of twenty years ago. Jump racing is the most exhilarating of all disciplines but a fall is an awful thing. The world had been invited to see our showdown – but a knockout could carry a terrible price. I had seen Denman wobble with exhaustion after winning the Hennessy and crunch into the birch at Newbury. Cheltenham has always been an anvil of dreams but it carries the heaviest of hammers as it shapes them.
Such trepidation eased once racing got under way not least thanks to the continued brilliance of Barry Geraghty on Soldatino. He may not be as tightly forceful as McCoy or as smoothly stylish as Walsh yet when he is on song he has a way of rolling a horse under him which is a match for anyone. Soldatino had just one previous English outing and only three others at places like Pau, Angers and Paray –le – Monial but he was slid through the clattering kaleidoscope of the early race and then in pursuit of the trail blazing Barizan as if defeat was never an option.
So much promotion had been invested in the Denman – Kauto showdown that it was getting almost disrespectful to the other participants. The figure waiting his turn for the loo certainly didn’t think that his horse was merely making up the numbers and having seen Imperial Commander walk into the Haydock paddock big and burly for a Twiston Davies runner, neither did the thinking (sadly not the betting) part of me.
“He is a lot fitter than he was then,” said Twiston genially, “I just hope he is not too fit. But I can’t see why he shouldn’t be right alongside Kauto and the other horse has to have a question mark on him.” Oh, the truth you can find in toilets. The paddock was too busy to forsake for the betting windows. John Oaksey was in his chair with Carruthers. He and Sean Magee had 1,000-1 against him winning the Gold Cup the day the horse was born. It would be quite a party but now the big ones were on the scene and they had their game faces on.
Clifford Baker is in the paddock as he has five times before with Gold Cup winners – Charter Party, See More Business, Denman and twice with Kauto Star. So much time, so much trouble has been taken to get this far and now it is into the jockeys hands and they too have a look that is taking them into places others cannot go. Ruby can be a smiling open presence in private or when he is talking for the camera. But here on Kauto’s back he is a man on a mission who knows how harsh the terms can be. Big Bucks win on Thursday might have been the most stylish victory of the week but on Master Minded’s Black Wednesday, he had hit the deck on two consecutive rides, the second a fatal fall for Citizen Vic.
McCoy had two even more recent flattenings. On Thursday he had twice been left WRITHING in agony but in between he had been at his most implacably compulsive on Alberta’s Run. Now he was drilling (down) towards us alongside little Carruthers with Imperial Commander bounding athletically beside them and Kauto Star keeping watch. As in the script.
We were by the last fence watching the big screen. McCoy was nursing Denman rather than firing him. Once they came up early but all seemed well until suddenly a blur of green and yellow, a shout from the commentator and a gasp from the crowd. Kauto had taken a fence on, and the fence had chinned him.
The rest is now burnt into our collective memories. How Kauto continued to stalk but his leaps had lost their conviction. How Denman got wind in his sails and began to gather momentum. How on the outside Paddy Brennan and Imperial Commander were always matching him leap for leap. How the expected downhill disaster duly arrived, but it was the struggling Kauto who turned the somersault.
Then it was Denman and McCoy attempting the unthinkable but Imperial Commander always having the legs of them. Coming towards us Denman still had some rhythm but Brennan and Imperial Commander were refusing to weaken. Over the last and up the hill and a new champion would be crowned as Denman used the last dregs to chase him. Clare Balding looked anxiously up the hill and asked if Kauto had risen. A speck appeared on the horizon. Ruby was hacking him back. Two Gold Cup winners beaten but both of them intact. Cheltenham had been the winner.
Finally we are all back up at the washdown; Denman in better state than he had been in either of the last two years, Imperial Commander being doused with water and lathered in praise. He is a huge powerful horse with big feet and terrible scars on his knees from falling on the road in his native Ireland. Now he has a place in the pantheon and a title it may take a new contender to shift. This was his sixth win at Cheltenham. No one will ever accuse him and his team of faking it.
The poet William Blake died in 1827 so he wasn’t thinking of Cheltenham when he penned the famous lines “great things are done when men and mountains meet.” But what if he could have added horses – let alone Katie Walshes -to the mix ?