At the end of Friday I was put on Radio 4’s PM programme to talk about The Festival. Waiting for your cue on these shows while the previous item deals in weighty matters of State often makes our little existence seem a self-centred triviality. But not this time. Not after the last farewell to McCoy, not after the ultimate fairy tale that brought the Gold Cup to Coneygree.
For after five minutes of mind-numbing, voter-alienating radio waffle about the “authenticity” of pictures of Ed Milliband in his second kitchen, it was important to remember that John Oaksey never bowed the knee to any politician when he came to defend the game. Don’t tell us, don’t tell him looking down on the horse he bred winning the Gold Cup he worshipped, that the last four days had been but pantomime. For John’s whole life was a tribute to the spirit that soars when men and horses and fences meet. In the drizzly gloom of Friday evening, Douvan’s opening brilliance in the Tuesday sunshine may have seemed several chapters away, but Coneygree’s climax had been one of the greatest stories ever told.
How utterly, impossibly unlikely Coneygree and the Bradstocks and Nico de Boinville all seemed as Ruby Walsh swept imperiously in and over on one Willie Mullins flyer after another. Looking back it is only a compliment to say that those winners blur into the memory. Douvan powering away in the Supreme Novices, Un De Sceaux spring heeled in the Arkle, Faugheen and Walsh outspeeding stacked up rivals in the Champion Hurdle. As Annie Power came spinning towards us in the Mares Hurdle it seemed as if Cheltenham had got their tape on repeat. But history knows how to humble things. It humbled Annie now.
Ruby Walsh is the finest rider over a racing obstacle that I have ever seen and that includes John Francome. His balance is within a horse not perched on top of it. Better than anyone he allows a horse to find its stride beneath him. For eight hurdles Annie Power had been doing this perfectly but coming to the last her still fizzing energy flipped her thinking process. Two whole strides early she was up in the air and reaching forward like a long chestnut airplane for the distant hurdle. It was a “hold your breath and wait for the crash” moment. She nearly made it but gravity grabbed her. From an expected encore we had the instant nightmare of a thoroughbred somersaulting on its neck. We all know what that can mean. Especially at Cheltenham. She got up. So too did Dell Arca in the middle of the 25 runner pack of the Coral Hurdle next day. Not all of them do.
Rolling Star didn’t at the last flight of Dell Arca’s race. Two years ago he had come here as favourite for the Triumph Hurdle and this was an attempt to get his career back on track. But he had lost his grip on the race as the last jump of his life was a bad one. His somersault was the wrong angle. The green screens were up quickly but one look had told us it was over. Rolling Star’s rider staggered across to the rail, his whole body wincing in pain. As the shock clouds cleared his head, he walked back behind the screens to see to his stricken partner. It was Nico de Boinville.
Those stark images of mortality are a reminder that the spirit of the Cotswolds is something more potent than anything you get out of a bottle. Out there on the track, no one is safe, no conclusions forgone, no past glories helpful however golden they may seem. Ask Barry Geraghty how he felt when he tried to roll Sprinter Sacre up to the leaders in the Queen Mother Champion Chase.
Two years ago, it had been a question of letting out a reef from the spinnaker as Sprinter Sacre sailed away from the field in as awesome a display as any of us have ever seen. Now there was no wind in the sails and the once unbeatable clipper just a drifting hulk that needed pulling up before the last. Sprinter Sacre has done things that will live with us always but those now are in yesteryear and after his race on Wednesday he was back at the dope boxes not as a lauded victor but with the “infra dig” label of “beaten favourite”.
Up ahead of him bobbed the winner Dodging Bullets. “He’s a nutter,” says Lucy Sharp about the horse she looks after at Paul Nicholls yard. “He jig jogs all the time. When he first came over from Ireland four years ago he jumped on to a truck when being ridden along the road. But he’s a great jumper and very brave. I love him.” She and Dodging Bullets are followed not just by Sprinter Sacre but by Sire de Grugy, last year’s winner now being tested as a weary fourth : happiness followed by disappointment, it is ever thus.
So too is anticipation and out on the track in the early mornings we were hugging ourselves with it as the Willie Mullins battalions strutted their stuff and Ruby Walsh talked to Channel 4 from his saddle pack camera and mike. Critical viewers’ moans about teething troubles with the equipment should not lessen the impact of having a major player talking viewers through the challenges ahead from the back of his athlete of the afternoon. Think Wayne Rooney, perhaps more appropriate think Johnny Sexton talking live on the morning of the match and adding a horse beneath for good measure.
Ruby was on his Gold Cup hope Djakadam on Friday. The morning before he had been on Vautour before that horse’s astonishing performance in the JLT. Now Vautour was cropping grass contentedly as Mullins French vet Virginie told us that she thought that Djakadam could win that afternoon but that he, Vautour would prove to be “superior” to them all. Around us was a 20 strong bunch of the largest and most successful raiding party ever sent from one stable to the Cheltenham Festival but the Gold Cup itself has still eluded Willie Mullins.
Standing there was to think that it would need one of the big stables to beat him. Just about the most unlikely of winners seemed to be the wonderful, absurdly impossible story that would be Coneygree and all that his batty and brilliant team represent.
How John Oaksey would have loved it. His daughter Sara bossing around in sweater and jeans, bickering happily with husband Mark in his pre-war coat and those mad professor glasses; his granddaughter Lily a diminutive but confident figure leading round this giant son of the mare Plaid Maid which Mark and Sarah and John’s wife Chicky had bought twenty years ago to “give him some fun in retirement”; John’s grand son Alfie whose show jumping tuition had given Coneygree a skill set way above the horse’s “novice” status. The necessary rain had come but the idea of the Bradstock’s front runner being able to lead the 18 horse Gold Cup field all the way seemed too silly to dream. Then you imagined John scoffing in your ear – “faint heart never won fair maiden.”
Nico de Boinville is no faint heart and although now a second season professional has just the Corinthian background, not to mention the Norman ancestry, of which John would approve. He too, along with Alfie Bradstock, had schooled and schooled Coneygree around that show jumping ring set high above the Wantage Vale so many times that could look you in the eye and say “I think the horse is bomb proof.” Shame on us for seeing that as mere pre-fight talk. Glory on him that he so splendidly carried it out.
Mind you it was only fifty yards from the winning post that imminent victory forced disbelief from the brain. The preceding six and a half minutes and twenty two fences had been a case of “so far so good, but we know it can’t last.” Sure Coneygree and Nico could roll along in front but having horses as good and experienced as Road To Riches and On His Own pressing upsides was an altogether different challenge to his virtually solo spins in Novice races. With his long legs Coneygree has more of a trundling than a flowing action, and although Nico and he were jumping with precision the big guns would surely soon rumble up and take him down.
We kept expecting him to weaken but he didn’t. Down the back straight for the last time he even ratcheted up the tempo and you could see jockeys’ arms moving `as the field were on the stretch. Coming down the hill there were only four in it. Coming off the final bend there were just three but Road To Riches had been joined by Djakadam and Ruby’s body was hunched with power.
The second last in the Gold Cup is as crucial as any fence anywhere. A fault there and the front runner weakens, the pursuer grabs belief. But Coneygree was up and out and over, and another good jump at the last meant only the run in could stop him. It has stopped many a good one before and as he wandered emptily to the right it looked as if he too would be taken. But Coneygree and De Boinville had battered their rivals into submission. It couldn’t be happening but it was.
The events in the unsaddling enclosure were ones of maddest abandon and no spirit of the deceased has ever been so happily present as John Oaksey’s was amongst his wife, and friends and children and grandchildren and a tall lanky horse trying to dodge the buckets of water that Sarah was throwing somewhat inaccurately in his direction. Lily Bradstock’s face was a mixture of wonderment and concentration as she tried to lead him around and then away from the growing melee. Not that long ago her left leg was in callipers and for all his power Coneygree had seemed fragile goods not Gold Cup prowess. But that was then. This was now. And it was wonderful.
So to the closing scene of four days that will ever glow in the memory: McCoy in the saddle for the last time at the Festival, “We’ll Miss You A.P.” gleaming from the big screen, the crowd and about 50 camera crews willing one last victory under the Cleeve Hill backdrop. But as those famous green and gold McManus silks crept right on cue into the race, the game reserved the final say: two horses down, one jockey to hospital, McCoy swerving round them, his chance surely gone but a huge effort still landing him in second place at the last.
It was unavailingly gallant but it was not to be. The winner was a sibling triumph for Tom and Michael Scudamore, Michael’s first as a trainer at a Festival where his grandfather Michael Snr had won the Gold Cup in 1957 two years before John Oaksey had his own first on Sabaria in the National Hunt Chase. How good to think of those two ancient comrades toasting each other in magnificent grandfatherly pride in wherever it is that old jocks go.
It was a sharp run up the hill from the unsaddling enclosure to the BBC Radio van but the breathlessness did not only come from physical exertion. We had just seen our greatest star ride one step closer to his final sunset just two hours after we had been inspired by a horse representing a legend on the other side of the horizon. Waiting there I remembered that there had been something wet on my cheeks in the happy, John Oaksey recalling chaos of Coneygree’s unsaddling. But it had not been from sadness. They had been tears of the purest joy.