THE TIMES, SPORT, Thursday 12 March 2020
In victory comes truth and often more than you first imagine. Ireland’s big hope Envoi Allen duly won the opening race as an odds-on shot should, but not many noticed the weariness amidst the cheers. The Cheltenham turf had become very, very testing. We should prepare for shocks.
Most in the melee were celebrating, but vets and stable staff did not like the splay of the six year old’s front legs, the exhausted tilt of his neck. Buckets of water were poured over his shoulders and down his back. The dizziness eased and he walked away with a big future beckoning. But we had been warned. The sun was out and the wind blowing. The ground was not so much soft as sticky. It would slow a tank and in the next, the three miles of the RSA Chase, legs would be turning to lead.
For almost all of the 20 fence journey, the story was of how well the two leaders, Minella Indo and Allaho, were jumping and how indifferently Champ was handling the obstacles. Brave and bold they went in leap after leap, the interest in the duel spiced by the pair being ridden by Rachael Blackmore and Paul Townend, the two jockeys who had fought out Tuesday’s memorable duel between Honeysuckle and Benie Des Dieux.
There was nothing in it coming to the last but then Blackmore and Minella Indo blundered and it seemed that the advantage would go to the red, white stripe, blue cap, silks of the Thomson family’s Cheveley Park Stud just as it had with Envoi Allen and would strike again in the closing Weatherby’s Champion Bumper with Ferny Hollow. But this was getting tough, Rachael and Minella would not be denied, the winning post seemed to be going away from both of them and neither horse’s forelegs had any bite. They were faltering prey for an avenging angel, and from way off the pace it swooped in the shape of Champ and Barry Geraghty.
When last seen together, horse and jockey had taken a crashing fall at this track on Boxing Day. Since then the Henderson team had put Champ through intensive schooling but while he never looked like turning over, he repeatedly lost ground at his fences and by the closing stages, we had discounted him. Going to the last fence he was so far adrift that someone offered him up at 399-1. They were not counting on what was happening up front or the namesake quality beneath the now inspired urgings of Barry Geraghty.
As the racing world long knows Champ is named after AP McCoy and while it was an optical illusion to talk of him “quickening up” past his quick-sanded rivals, there was plenty of McCoyesque determination in the way he put his head down to sweep past the others before the line. If Champ gets his jumping together, the sky could be the limit.
Following Tuesday’s Champion Hurdle triumph on Epatante, the thought that Geraghty was already heading heavenwards was reinforced when he steered serenely through the thundering, 25 runner tumult of the County Hurdle, clad, as with the others, in the green and gold livery of his patron JP McManus.
As he and the red-hot favourite Defi Du Seuil paraded before the Queen Mother Champion Chase, many punters were considering Barry as something akin to the Angel Gabriel. But it was not Barry who was going to be doing the running and quite early in the contest the angle of his body did not have the poised confidence of a jockey who feels an abundance of energy at the end of the rein.
Defi Du Seuil’s first two victories this season, one on this track, were on officially soft going and his win at Ascot in January was on a surface officially designated as “heavy.” But the spring heeled power that has been the little horse’s trademark seemed to be sapped by the stickiness of this Cheltenham turf and while the form book said that he ought to be able to peg back Politogue, the trail blazing leader, the eye insisted that the soaring grey was going to be very hard to catch.
What a trail Politogue blazed. Horses drilling down to the opening fence in the Champion Chase is the fastest man and beast approach and cross an obstacle, and this was Politogue’s day, and a ride Harry Skelton will remember into dotage. As they came towards us the first time, the horse’s ears were pricked, the jockey’s body angled easily into the leap. Next circuit there was everything on the line. This last fence was a Grand Prix driver on 10/10, but there was control within the desperation. Harry drove Politogue in full stride and threw his heart high and over. The big grey answered and then clawed his way through the last sapping yards for the pair to have a moment of history of their own.
Tiger Roll has already got his place in the book and the sticky ground and a brilliant French horse called Easyland prevented him adding to it yesterday. But a third Grand National still beckons, if he trots out healthy this morning. Although a much bigger Coronavirus “If” suggests that there is much more than “sticky going” ahead.