1 December 2002

Irish outsider gives his rivals a jumping lesson in the Hennessy

Only an Irishman could put it so pithily. “He’s a good jumper,” said jockey David Casey about Hennessy winner Be My Royal’s fault-packed efforts last term. “It’s just that he only got round once in his first eight runs over fences.”

But there was wisdom in the whimsy. Casey had found that the key to Be My Royal’s jumping was to let him look after himself. With 25 runners yesterday – the biggest Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup Chase field since Middleham-trained Springbok beat his stable-companion, Rough Tweed, in a photo-finish 40 years ago – looking after yourself was at a premium. Be My Royal, who started at 33-1, was only fifth of a seven-wide flight of chasers at the final fence. He and Casey can be proud of what they had overcome.

We may have had greater Hennessys than this. I am lucky enough to have seen Arkle win in 1964 and 1965 and to have been a close-up witness as Stan Mellor catapulted Stalbridge Colonist over the last to beat the horse they nicknamed `Himself’ at odds of 25-1 in 1966. But in all that time there has never been as open a race as this one when it began to unravel.

Hussard Collonges and Gunther McBride took a packed bunch along for a circuit and a half, with Be My Royal and his fellow-Irish challenger Harbour Pilot their closest pursuer. They were followed by the favourite, Bounce Back, for whom Tony McCoy had kept a position along the inside despite a near-catastrophic disagreement in front of the stands.

But as the pack swept towards the straight, with Harbour Pilot, Carbury Cross, Whitenzo and Gingembre all hustling towards the lead, McCoy was for once already having to opt for a supporting role.

At this stage Whitenzo’s rider, Ruby Walsh, was menacingly motionless in the saddle, while his rivals pushed and scrubbed around ahead of him. But then Whitenzo completely lost his lines, took the fence on with his chest, fired Ruby up over his ears and only a piece of simian acrobatics got the rider back in the saddle. It says volumes for the depth of Whitenzo’s reserves that he somehow rallied to be only a couple of lengths off the leader as the race reached its showdown.

Harbour Pilot had come through to duel with Hussard Collonges, Carbury Cross in the Arkle colurs was to the stands’ side of them, Gingembre attacking just in behind, the gutsy Gunther McBride battling it out on the far side and Be My Royal sticking on right over on the far rail. It was this position, allied to another good jump, that was the making of his victory. For while others weakened and Harbour Pilot belted the obstacle and lost momentum, Be My Royal landed running and within 50 yards was in front, with Gingembre coursing him desperately towards the post.

The Newbury run-in has a hazardous dogleg as the inside path edges right to avoid the water jump. For a few moments it looked as if Harbour Pilot might cut off his countryman but Be My Royal and Casey had not come through this far to be denied. Hard though the long-legged Andrew Thornton thrust Gingembre after him, Be My Royal was always strongest, taking this 46th Hennessy by half a length with Harbour Pilot a length and a half further back.

Everything in racing makes sense afterwards and it is easy to see why Be My Royal represented the bet of a lifetime to some of his supporters from counties Cork and Carlow. Two seasons ago, he was one of trainer Willie Mullins most-fancied runners in the Cheltenham bumper.

If you had known then that one day he would appear fit and well in the Hennessy with bottom weight, you would have gone begging to the bank manager to treble the overdraft. He needed a trainer who would not panic; Mullins never does. And a jockey who found the key. In finding it, Casey, 26, put his own earlier troubles most finally behind him.

A much-maligned losing ride at Kempton on Boxing Day two years ago started a tailspin which sent him back to his native Ireland to rebalance. He may never be a McCoy but his battle back towards the big time has been rewarding to watch. Too many other events in racing, most recently former dual Hennessy-winner Graham Bradley’s unhappily well-merited eight-year corruption ban on Friday, have taken the spotlight away from the absolute excitement that a great steeplechase can give.

So yesterday was a redemption. It was an afternoon which included French-trained victories for the highly promising novice chaser Jair du Cochet and the hurdler Never whose peerless owner, Sir Peter O’Sullevan, called more than 40 Hennessy Gold Cups, beginning with Mandarin’s inaugural triumph in 1957.

But above all it was an afternoon with a real heart-warmer as a centrepiece. As Casey and Be My Royal finally took this Hennessy by the throat, they confirmed the strongest truth – that the race has to be the thing.

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