Sometimes there can be a happy ending. The light was fading as they swept down the hill, but a beacon of hope shone from the familiar white cap above the green and gold. He was hampered in traffic both at the second-last and on the final bend but straightening up there was a drive and a dynamism that linked us back 33 years to his dad on Dawn Run. Another Jonjo O’Neill was to win at the Cheltenham Festival. It was the best of times.
Back in 1986 Jonjo snr had already survived a leg smashed “into a bag of gravel” and was actually battling cancer on Gold Cup day. But his unquenchable optimism won through and that’s the most addictive of all the attractions of the Cheltenham Festival. It will always be a four-day battle of hope against experience. There will be dreadful disasters as well as giddy triumphs and at a time of political mayhem this year, delivered more completely than ever.
The location and the history add a special potency to the mix. Cleeve Hill was basked in spring sunshine as we drove in to film a Champion Hurdle preview on Monday morning. With the possible exception of Table Mountain looking down on Test cricket at Cape Town’s Newlands ground, this is the greatest backdrop in sport and all the great ones have galloped in the natural arena beneath.
Two days before Dawn Run’s 1986 triumph, the Nicky Henderson-trained See You Then had cruised up for the second of his three Champion Hurdles and now his stable’s Buveur D’Air was bidding to match that treble.
“The thing about See You Then,” said jockey Steve Smith Eccles on the line from Newmarket, “is that he never, ever made a mistake at a hurdle. This horse is not quite so certain.”
It was to prove an unhappy prophecy.
But only as part of an opening day that took Kipling’s “triumph and disaster” to the very limit. So many Irish horses had come over, half of them had to be stabled at Aintree, yet it was still a 24-strong Willie Mullins team that exercised in the centre of the track that morning, and they were preceded by a Gordon Elliott posse that numbered all of 28.
There were wild winds tugging at the tarpaulins, wild horses launching at the tapes when racing began, not least of them Ruby Walsh’s mount Klassical Dream who preceded to take the whole race from the front. When Mullins then saddled Duc De Genievres to win the second and Buveur D’Air’s stablemate Beware The Bear took the third you could sneak the thought that predictions might almost be simple.
Cheltenham has the habit of smacking such delusions in the face. Buveur D’Air’s crashing fall may have distracted from the excellence of Espoir D’Allen, of his still working farrier-trainer Gavin Cromwell’s performance to win the Champion, but it was only the prelude to greater drama.
I like to stand at the last obstacle and as Walsh pushed Benie Des Dieux towards the final flight you could see her take the long stride needed for take-off, only for the leap to be overegged, her forelegs skidding desperately on landing, finally capsizing to snatch away the punters’ money. A race later, from the same place I watched Rachael Blackmore stamp her own identity on the track with a soaring victory on A Plus Tard.
For at the end of the attritional four-mile, 25-fence National Hunt Chase, there were screens up at three fences and an official was confirming five horses were on the ground. You felt gutted for the visual ammunition this gave jump racing’s enemies and strayed into the rather hopeless thought that “something must be done”.
The stewards clearly shared that opinion but in the cool of the morning you wondered at the justice of penalising Declan Lavery for successfully jumping the last fence with Jerrysback and plodding home to land £12,900 for his connections and 16-1 each-way bets for his backers. Come Wednesday’s TV programme, AP McCoy was not cool, he was furious, and while some of his comments about Australian officials may not have endeared him to the BHA or earned him a free trip to Melbourne, they do indicate a concern that the well-intentioned emphasis on horse welfare by racing’s governors is taking their necessary duty of care into a self-defeating policy of caution.
“Have you ever known,” a well-known non-racing journalist queried on Wednesday, “racing to seem so defensive?” It was a sad question to be asked and the best answer came from a tweet by Gold Cup-winning jockey Sam Waley-Cohen: “Strong attendance on course, record ITV audiences, equal and leading female participants, world-leading horse welfare. Racing is in good shape. We need to stand up for our heritage and values!”
Wednesday’s racing went a long way to getting the smile back on its face. Top of the bill of course was Altior, stretching his unbeaten run to 18, but this was a case of a champion getting the job done rather than the zing and elan of his earlier days. I will be amazed and disappointed if he does not move up to three miles for next season’s King George at Kempton – and if he wins that impressively, why not, heavy ground excepted, come back here for the Gold Cup itself.
But Topofthegame and Tiger Roll’s wins were the performances with a “wow” for style rather than merely for immensity of achievement. The two long, flowing, race-clinching jumps that Harry Cobden got out of Topofthegame at the last two fences were things of wonder. It is all that is best about Cheltenham, and the mind already leaps forward to seeing him take everyone on in next year’s Gold Cup – and maybe Altior too!
Tiger Roll has in every sense become a national as well as an Ed Chamberlin favourite, and his cross-country stroll was as much public appearance as major victory. On that November day at Market Rasen in 2013, who would have thought that the cheaply bought little horse who came up from Nigel Hawke’s yard in Devon to win the three-year-old hurdle would end up as the most famous of all the equine heroes ever to carry the O’Leary Gigginstown colours?
But if Wednesday restored goodwill, Thursday gave us euphoria. It is easy to get carried away in the heat of the moment, especially if you are saying things on TV, but looking back I will state again that for sustained uplifting emotional experience I have never seen anything to match what happened in that golden hour in the Cotswolds last week. I have been lucky enough to watch Arkle versus Mill House, Grundy-Bustino, Red Rum-Crisp and last year’s slugfest of Native River against Might Bite. There was the miracle of Bob Champion and Aldaniti, Lester’s Lazarus turn in the Breeders’ Cup and Frankie’s Magnificent Seven, but what Bryony Frost and Frodon did for us followed by Andrew Gemmell’s cheering on of Paisley Park was off the scale.
Front-runners are always the most exciting; front-runners who jump foot perfect like Frodon – especially that extraordinary, forelegs-extended spring at the ditch on the hill – can make the heart sing. But when they also refuse to be beaten and are accompanied by so natural and outgoing a partner as Bryony Frost, it is a dream made in sporting heaven.
The incomparable John Inverdale is sadly ending 30 years of Cheltenham broadcasts for the BBC and was already at work on the rugby in Cardiff as he reflected that “Bryony can be National Hunt racing’s Frankie Dettori and potentially heralds a whole new age for racing”.
We began to get our breath back when the presentations were over and think that we had already supped overfull of wonder – how wrong we were.
Within 40 minutes we had the hot favourite for one of the biggest races of the year grinding his way through the field cheered on and followed every step of the way – by a man who could not see. The tale of Paisley Park has been running long enough this season for us all to know the story of how Andrew Gemmell has not allowed being blind from birth in any way to prevent him from travelling the world and attending everything from racing, to Test matches, to tennis and of course his beloved West Ham.
But for us all to witness his unfeigned, unadulterated delight as Aidan Coleman drove Paisley Park clear up the run-in was an experience of another dimension. It was such a demonstration of mind over matter, of the unconquerable strength of the human spirit, that a number of us, myself very much included, quite literally sobbed with happiness.
Such thoughts of mind over matter were only strengthened when Lizzie Kelly gave a brilliantly strong and positive front-running ride on Siruh Du Lac to emphasise female jockeys’ contribution to the Cheltenham stage, which was rounded off the following day by a second victory, and this time a Grade 1, for Rachael Blackmore when taking the Albert Bartlett on Minella Indo. The Frost-Kelly-Blackmore success should do much to grant their wish of being treated just as jockeys without stressing the gender, but in the wider context it remains surprising how comparatively rare such female victories continue to be.
For while Gee Armytage rode a double at the festival way back in 1987, and Rachael Blackmore may be splendidly duelling with Paul Townend for this season’s Irish jump jockeys’ title, only Lucy O’Neill in 15th and Katie O’Farrell in 50th are in the top half century. It’s a situation not dissimilar in Britain, with Bryony Frost 15th in the table, Bridget Andrews 39th and Lucy Alexander at 50.
Following Thursday was always going to be difficult, and one race in on the Friday it looked tragically impossible. However freakishly unfortunate and unavoidable Sir Erec’s breakdown on the flat after the fourth hurdle may have been, the circumstances for audiences on course and on TV could not have been worse. He was the hottest favourite of the day and so good-looking that Alice Plunkett quite drooled over him in the paddock, but there was also the slight doubt of a well-reported foot injury earlier in the week exacerbated by him having to be reshod at the start. No matter that Sir Erec was fully checked by the vets after shoeing and had been extensively x-rayed before travelling from Ireland, the catastrophic injury that followed this sequence was a coincidence that did not sit well with many of racing’s friends, let alone its enemies.
Which is why we must pick up Waley-Cohen’s lead and stand up for values that accept the responsibility of the challenge but also the reality of the risks. Fifty years on from the event, I still remember a similar thing happening during a much less heralded race at Kempton. One moment the mare beneath me was travelling strongly towards the final turn, the next her foreleg had gone and I was desperately struggling to keep her upright and then to help the vet put her out of pain.
Veterinary inspection is infinitely better than back then but legs will break, falls will come, speedy euthanasia will be the best option. Racing, especially jump racing, will always be a dangerous business, which is exactly why those who do it are most committed to the care of the athletes involved whether they have two legs or four.
Few people know this better or care more than Willie Mullins and his son Patrick who, despite being one of the finest riders in Ireland and being beaten a short head in the Coral Cup on Wicklow Brave, had a nightmare festival – being brought down by Buveur D’Air in the Champion Hurdle, having a fall that proved fatal to Ballyward on the first day and then suffering the same thing with Invitation Only when making the running in the Gold Cup. With Kemboy unseating David Mullins at the first and Ruby Mullins having to pull up Bellshill at the eighth, only Paul Townend and Al Boum Photo were left to try to break Willie Mullins’ long-standing Gold Cup hoodoo.
It will soon be written deep into Cheltenham legend how when taking the lead off the final turn Paul Townend was trying to atone for an ultimate disaster of his own – the brain fade at Punchestown in April that saw him inexplicably alter course and crash through the rails on Al Boum Photo before the last fence. Now his compass was steady, his drive was strong, and his relief and gratitude afterwards deeply humbling to behold.
But then being around the Mullins operation would uplift all but the most incorrigible of cases and as Cheltenham drew to its close it was only right that Mullins snr should finally get the one great race that has always eluded him. Six times Irish amateur champion as a rider and already ten times top trainer are quite unprecedented accolades, but rarely in any profession will you see honours carried so lightly. This Gold Cup may not have seen an expected outcome but no trainer ever deserved it more or will appreciate it more fully – and that’s not in the bottles which may take a few days to empty.
So belief in the game flooded back and we closed with that special moment when young Jonjo picked up the baton his father so gloriously flourished long before he was born. There is a particular hustle to get back up the walkway to the paddock when the last race is over but a familiar sturdy little figure whose first riding exploits were bareback in the fields around his hometown of Castletownroche was already cresting the rise.
Jonjo snr has had the father’s anguish of seeing his son laid off for eight months with a spinal injury. Now he had seen him deliver on the biggest stage. There is warmth in the smile that only Cheltenham can give.
“It’s just great isn’t it?” said Jonjo.
Yes, we may have had some of the worst of times this week, but the best of times won through.