16 November 2003

Can you hate the sport you love? Two good horses died at Cheltenham yesterday and for all the treble winning heroics of Tony McCoy or the riding and training triumph that saw Fondmort land the Paddy Power Chase, it was impossible to leave the course without more than the winter chill closing on the heart strings.

Brother Joe had won seven of his nine races over fences including his last five in succession. But he didn’t get high enough at the second last and took what looked like a standard fall only to stand up with an injured shoulder. The horse ambulance got him back to the stables, but the damage was inoperable. Euthanasia was the only option. It happens.

That news filtered through slowly, and the huge crowd could enthuse at the first two Tony McCoy winners, heedless of what had happened, unaware of the worse that was to come when Poliantas would drop dead after finishing second to Fondmort. McCoy had transformed the recalcitrant Puntal into the pressure player which caused Brother Joe’s fall, and then his relentless driving style perfectly suited the long striding Therealbandit in the three mile hurdle.

So the green meadow patchwork quilt of Cleeve Hill glowed in splendour as the nine runners paraded for the Paddy Power Gold Cup on this greatest of jumping’s autumn afternoon.

The silks flashed in the sun as Ei Ei led Poliantas and the following pack a good gallop for a full circuit. At the top of the hill, Cyfor Malta was struggling, his chance of a third successive victory already gone as Ruby Walsh let Poliantas stride on, followed by Fondmort with It Takes Time and Risk Accessor trying to close.

Over the third last they came and down to the trap that is the penultimate fence on Cheltenham’s `Old’ Course. The slope bowls you into the obstacle with more speed than your horse has actually generated. Any trip or slip and the momentum will turn you over. It Takes Time and Risk Accessor took it together, neither made a major blunder but coming down steep and locked together the somersault took them. “He was stretching a little and hanging right,” said McCoy of It Takes Time. “We would not have won but we might have stood up if the other horse hadn’t collided with us.”

No collisions for Fondmort, unless you count those on the bookmakers who had to pay out on what had become a heavily backed favourite. Round the last turn came Fondmort five lengths clear of Poliantas. Into the last Mick Fitzgerald drove his perfectly balanced young partner, over soared Fondmort almost as spring-heeled as his spectacular final leap at last year’s Triple Print Gold Cup, and as he came home in triumph you could appreciate trainer Nicky Henderson’s verdict of “Absolute perfection.”

Indeed it had been. This was only Henderson’s 17th winner from just 59 runners (Martin Pipe’s figures are 70 from 350) but it was achieved with the accomplished planning that has long made the trainer a master of his craft. The Paddy Power Gold Cup was logged up as the target, a racecourse gallop at Kempton put the edge on Fondmort and the rest was left to Fitzgerald, whose horsemanship and hunger have only been sharpened by an ankle injury so serious that retirement was a distinct possibility.

As Mick pulled the goggles down and let the smile crease his leathery features you could think all was well with the jumping world. Or at the very least that here was the spearhead of any jumping response to the increasing winter challenge from all-weather racing.

Last Tuesday had seen a thought-provoking document on future strategy from Cheltenham’s Owners Racecourse Holdings Trust. On Wednesday `Bet Direct’ announced details of its All-Weather Winter Series. On Thursday Cheltenham itself hosted a vet’s seminar.

Racing was at least confronting its problems. Then Poliantas wobbled in sudden distress after finishing. “Absolute perfection” was about to become absolute hell.

In his career Poliantas had won five of his 11 chases, his most recent run being a defeat of Fondmort over this course and distance in April. His trainer Paul Nicholls is the most expert of equine conditioners and has saddled this horse to finish either first or second at the opening of the last two seasons. Jockey Ruby Walsh had a trouble-free ride yesterday and while well out-gunned on the run-in still had a galloping horse beneath him.

“I had pulled up and begun to walk back,” explained Walsh, whose grey hairs belie his youth if not his wisdom, “then he staggered so I got off him. I thought he was just distressed a little and the vets were brilliant and got oxygen to him immediately. Then he went down. It was terrible but these things happen.”

They do and they will. All those of us who are devoted to the challenge, drama and satisfactions of the jumping game can do is to ensure that what will always be a risky game can never be adjudged a callous one. Yesterday’s verdict, for all its horrors, had to be an acquittal.

The night draws in quickly at this time of year. For a long time in the last it looked as if the ultra-shrewd Barney Curley might be about to land another gamble with Cristoforo. But right at the finish the implacable McCoy came out of the gloom to land his treble. He had rounded off a great day but one can only hope there is no prophetic ring in the name of his partner. It was Gone Too Far.

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