CHELTENHAM GOLD CUP 2012
The truth is what makes it. When victory came on Friday it was simple, decisive, unexpected, but also wholly right. For it belonged to an utterly remarkable man and an underrated horse called Synchronized who had achieved the almost impossible. He had matched A.P. for heart.
Every year you can sense from early morning that the new drama to be played out in this green theatre of dreams will have something of a legend to it. So it was this time as we watched Ruby Walsh canter on the exercise ground in his “home job” as first jockey for the Willie Mullins string. He was as polite as ever but the drawn, grey face told us that any Big Buck’s celebrations were now a long way from a mind that had Kauto Star’s sixth and final Gold Cup on which to ponder. Could the old hero really have recovered from that horrible schooling fall? Could he once again slap down the upstart Long Run who had bettered him last year? Could something else emerge to gallop into history? None of us thought the victor-to-be was but ten miles away at Jackdaws Castle.
By ten past three it was time for believing. Ruby and the other jockeys wore their “game face” masks as they paraded on the course with the packed stands buzzing in expectation. A great wave of sweet, affectionate applause swept down as Kauto Star eased majestically off to the start, ears pricked and apparently ready as ever for the battle up ahead. Long Run looked all youthful power behind that big sheepskin noseband, The Giant Bolster a hardy scrapper scornful of his 50/1 price tag, and Synchronized? Well with him everything seems a struggle. As he thundered past, you were just pleased for him that the man in the green and yellow McManus silks was the best in the universe when struggles get tough.
It was an odd race to watch as all but the last of beliefs proved false ones. For half a circuit the Kauto dream seemed intact, but then his jump lost its skip, his position its poise, and Ruby pulled away to where the green fields of golden retirement will beckon. For the next 4 minutes there was an empty feeling of ante-climax with the only interest in whether mischance could take from Long Run the Gold Cup which was now surely his to lose. From the top of the hill there was then the growing thought that he and Sam Waley Cohen would have to dig very deep to win again. At the second last it looked beyond them as The Giant Bolster took control. A huge jump at the final fence put them back in contention but then, and only then, did a flash of yellow and green reality smack us in the face.
It was McCoy and Synchronized. It could not be, but it was. As ever the white faced chaser had struggled from the start. He hadn’t jumped very well, he never has. The best that could be said of him was that he was hanging on.
Swinging down the hill he was last and apparently going worst of the seven strong group who now had the race between them. He was flat out and still five lengths adrift as Prince Rupert led Long Run, The Giant Bolster and Burton Port across the path and straightened for those two closing fences. At the second last he gave A.P. a long brave leap which got him into the argument. Running down towards us McCoy had to pull round Long Run and The Giant Bolster and ask for one desperate, final throw. In answer, Synchronized threw his heart so far over that he had to swerve in mid-flight to avoid the leader.
But the momentum was there. Long Run and The Giant Bolster reached their necks out gallantly but the punch, the power, the hunger, was with Synchronized and McCoy. They passed the line with the crowd cheering for a moment of glory unsullied by any disappointments of others. McCoy stood high in his irons to salute the heavens and then, as he had with Don’t Push It that never to be forgotten day at Aintree two years ago, invited the world to hear the truth.
It starts with the horse. It always should. At this meeting three years ago Synchronized took a crashing and weary fall at the final hurdle in a race where McCoy and Don’t Push It ended a battling 8th. Now the rider paid tribute, explaining that for the little hero beneath him, crossing these fences was an effort that only the bravest could have overcome. Synchronized’s long white face had a nodding honesty about it which made more than the jockey want to throw his arms around in thanks. Back up at the wash-boxes 22 year old Coral Eastment’s glasses were fugged with emotion as she kissed the horse she rides every morning at Jonjo O’Neill’s. In a little tent behind the weighing room owner, trainer and jockey added their share.
In the wider world of sport this was a quite extraordinary occasion. Over the years I have sat in press conferences for the likes of Alex Ferguson, Sugar Ray Leonard, Tiger Woods, Usain Bolt, even Mike Tyson too. They all have their moments of wonder but there is usually so much orchestration that they also have teeming, scrabbling undercurrents of disbelief. Now no such doubts registered as three people just down from racing’s highest peak gave unreserved credit to the animal that had lifted them there. And the jockey said it best of all. “He has a great heart,” said A.P. “and a great will to win. And in any sport, any walk of life, to be a winner you have to have heart, you have to have belief, and you need to want it more than anyone else.”
Like horse, like rider. It’s not just what McCoy does but the heart with which he does it. Cheltenham was a good place on Friday.