Sunday Times, November 18th 2023

Balance can be beautiful – until it isn’t. For 15 of the 16 fences of this Paddy Power Gold Cup Harry Cobden and Stage Star were the image of a soaring spring-heeled centaur.  Then at the last, the stride was wrong, the horse threw himself long and low , sprawled on landing, and for a dreadful moment all seemed over..

But somehow Cobden kept a leg either side, regathered his reins and after a few frantic seconds had enough gallop to keep a four-length advantage to the line.

Cobden and Stage Star had set off on their two-and-a-half mile journey as a front running favourite should. For a full circuit top-weight The Real Whacker and locally trained Fugitif vied for the lead with the grey Unexpected Party also right up with the pace.

The Real Whacker weakened  down the hill and swinging into the final two fences it was Notlongtilmay that loomed up to challenge along with Stage Star’s stable companion Il Ridotto. An extravagant leap at the second last put the leader four lengths to the good and punching down towards us the battle looked only for the places.

It was to be Cobden’s first victory in the Paddy Power, trainer Paul Nicholls’ third and his Il Ridotto would keep on to be a distant third ahead of Fugitif and Unexpected Party with the The Real Whacker weakening and being pulled up before the final turn. Stage Star is owned by a thousand strong syndicate in The Owners Group and will be aimed at the Ryanair Chase back here next march. His rider was generous in his praise, “to get going again shows the true courage he has”. In return the horse would surely have paid tribute to the balance and prehensile grip of the main above.

But balance when it goes wrong, as it did for Graham Lee at Newcastle 9 days ago, can also be a horror show. The much-raced  sprinter Ben Macdui lost his and fired poor Graham into the Newcastle sand like a pellet from a ruler. 

The outpouring of concern for Lee and his family has been quite exceptional and reflects the jockey’s achievements not just as the only rider to have won both the Grand National and Ascot Gold Cup but as a fine member of the racing family. Friends can’t mend his injuries but at the races they were unanimous in their support.

For 20 championship landing years you could come here and hang your hat on the force of nature that was AP McCoy. His time out of the saddle is very different, sometimes even seems a touch empty now. But his heart has always been the kindest one. When the extent of Graham Lee’s disaster hit last Friday McCoy was straight into the car to pick up Lee’s daughter Amy from her college in Swindon and power the 280 miles to Newcastle.

Balance in life is no easier or less important than over the last fence at Cheltenham.

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