SUNDAY TIMES 30 January 2022
It couldn’t happen but it did. Paisley Park whipped round at the start before setting off an impossible 60 yards behind his four rivals before coming through to take this Cleeve Hurdle for the third time. He is such a dude that a spontaneous three cheers rang out round Cheltenham as he was led from the unsaddling enclosure.
Three years ago Paisley Park ruled the stayers’ world and his victory for owner Andrew Gemmill after Bryony Frost’s Ryanair win on Frodon was the climax to the famous “Golden Hour”. But those days seemed to be slipping away and the old horse increasingly looked as if it was he who decided just what happened on the track. The first decision yesterday was clearly, “You must be joking.”
With Paisley Park apparently out of the reckoning the race was set up for Champ to continue his conversion back from brilliant but erratic chaser to would be champion staying hurdler. Especially so as Lisnagar Oscar was setting a gallop fast enough to let Champ settle behind him and raise his own hopes of rekindling the form that won the 2020 Stayers Hurdle at the same Festival as Champ’s finest perilous hour in the RSA Chase. Sweeping down the hill the fact that Paisley Park had got up to be on the heels of the leaders as McFabulous also cruised into contention still seemed an achievement not a threat.
But if you get racing hard before and round the final turn at Cheltenham that last hill is a mountain to climb. The leaders engaged so fast that they ran consecutive furlongs in 12.77 and 13.56 seconds. Paisley Park had been up this hill before and caught his breath. Off the bend Aidan Coleman engaged his partner’s long, rhythmic stride to come through with a power that Champ could not match. The last two furlongs were clocked in a slowing 15.05 and 15.32. But that was fast enough.
Champ carried the famous green and gold hoops of JP McManus which had seen their 4,000th success a race earlier when Chantry House justified favouritism in the Cotswold Chase but made such heavy weather of his jumping that thoughts of the Gold Cup on this Cheltenham Trials Day must surely be in question. Time and again Chantry House lost ground in the air to Santini and the Borders hero Aye Right up front and it was only the skilful persistence of Nico De Boinville and his own wonderful heart that finally ground out victory.
For some agonizing moments it looked as if that heart might have given too much. There is a twitch of the tail that a horse gives when it is truly exhausted, and Chantry House gave it now. De Boinville is a sensitive as well as consummate horseman and was off him in a flash. Much water was splashed and although that tail still had a crooked tweak as Chantry House was led back into the unsaddling enclosure, the recovery continued, and a visit up to the stables afterwards was to see the big horse with ears pricked after his ordeal.
It was an afternoon of unseasonably warm January sunshine, and a star performance by the Irish Triumph hurdle hope Pied Piper, but there were other reminders that this is a game that can chill. A race after Paisley Park, the leader Harper’s Brook capsized at the third hurdle and wiped out the giant Hillcrest and before that we had watched the Doncaster Sky Bet Chase on the big screen and soon wished we hadn’t.
At the water jump, Midnight Shadow, the pride of Sue and Harvey Smith’s Ilkley Moor stable, winner and placed in 18 of his 28 races for Mrs Aafke Clarke and the star of the Paddy Power Gold Cup back here in November, dropped his hind legs in the water jump and broke his back. Those cheers for Paisley Park could lift the heart but what happened 10 minutes later up at Doncaster could break it. We hated it happening, but it did.