Friday 28 April 2017

Vincent Hogan: Tale of agony amid the ecstasy

Dunguib, with Brian O'Connell up, started the Supreme Novices Hurdle as favourite, but finished a disappointing third
Dunguib, with Brian O'Connell up, started the Supreme Novices Hurdle as favourite, but finished a disappointing third
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Philip Fenton clasped his hands in priestly calm and began assembling his thoughts like wreaths on a grave.

People crowded him with kindnesses, but you knew their words couldn't reach him. His gaze seemed to drift beyond the rear husk of the grandstand and away up to where a single jet-steam cut across the West Country sky. "Sure there'll be other days" he murmured, to no one in particular.

This isn't a place for soft landings, not when you come here as virtual guardian of a sacred object and leave it with a beaten horse. Dunguib's story may, in time, gather fresh glory and it won't have been lost on Fenton that the two marquee victories of a dramatic opening day -- Sizing Europe in the Irish Independent Arkle and Binocular in the Champion Hurdle -- would, essentially, be redemption songs.

But something was lost here that is maybe beyond rescue now. The chance to separate himself from the rest of hurdling, to make real the promise that in this skinny, slightly upright and eccentric gelding, Fenton might indeed have care of a looming equine God.

Favour

Pointedly, the markets still favour his Champion Hurdle chances in next year's festival ahead of Menorah and Get Me Out of Here, the two horses that finished ahead of him yesterday.

It was said that bookies stood to lose £10m if Dunguib won the Supreme Novices' Hurdle. He went off at a prohibitive 4/5, the first odds-on favourite since Golden Cygnet in 1978. And a little gust of nervousness seemed to ripple through the place as he was led, last and palpably regal, to the parade ring.

But the spell is broken now. Dunguib's jumping aberrations -- supposedly down to virtual boredom in the Deloitte win at Leopardstown -- came back to haunt him here, the favourite clattering two hurdles out in the country. Young jockey Brian O'Connell found himself pushed increasingly wide and, by the time they turned in, Dunguib was pretty much chasing speeding cars.

"I don't think that cost him," Fenton protested of the ragged jumping. "He had plenty of light over the last couple of hurdles and he was only a couple of lengths down jumping the last, which he jumped reasonably well. He just could never peg back the two in front of him."

Fenton, of course, knew exactly the direction the forensic would take. O'Connell is just four months a professional and there are many marquee jockeys who would have coveted an alliance with Dunguib.

To his credit, Fenton had no appetite for excuse or scapegoat.

"We could all jump on the bandwagon, but I've no criticism of Brian whatsoever," he said pointedly. "He (Dunguib) travelled well enough and missed a hurdle at the top of the hill. He (Brian) just wanted to give him a chance to climb to the top before he rushed him into a position. "I think somehow, jumping the third last, we were probably fighting a losing battle even though he was getting there slowly but surely. Brian just felt maybe he was a little wide and, turning down the hill, they got a couple of lengths on him.

"Look, the ground was fine, he travelled, he settled well. He ate and drank plenty. We've no excuses."

O'Connell, likewise, sought no refuge in any of the small print. He came to the steps of the weigh room after the race, dressed in a grey suit and politely offered his take on a clearly wounding day.

"We jumped off, went a gallop and then it slowed up," he revealed. "And we kind of kept bunching up as such. I was unlucky to get caught a little wide which probably wasn't going to help. Look, he ran a good race it just didn't work out today. But there'll be other days."

Today, he rides at Down Royal. The wheels keep turning.

This is a world of stringent assessment, in which all parties sign up to sometimes withering scrutiny. It says something when the most successful jump jockey of all time comes to this citadel, propelled by a need to prove himself.

Tony McCoy's animation after Binocular's victory certainly flew beyond the conventional celebration of a man with 14 consecutive jockeys' titles to his name.

But Binocular has been a pet project of McCoy's. He'd been beaten on the horse in both a Supreme Novice and Champion Hurdle previously and, each time, came away believing we'd barely glimpsed the margins of his talent. And, latterly, a strange torpor seemed to have descended upon Binocular's story.

His prep race at Sandown was shockingly lethargic and no end of medical tests could decant a reason. McCoy's faith had begun to waver. Until last Wednesday.

"I actually went so fast on him (in work at Nicky Henderson's yard) last Wednesday morning, I frightened myself," explained McCoy. "I'm not knocking Zaynar (Henderson's other entry) but I rode him 10 minutes later and there was no comparison.

"You get a bit despondent when things aren't going well. You feel for the horse a bit because lots of other people are knocking him and you know there is something stopping the real Binocular being as good as he can be. But, at long last, the real Binocular showed up today.

"This was a better feeling than I've ever had on a horse."

McCoy's victory, of course, meant that the Noel Meade stable didn't leave the course in a Securicor van, that £1m bonus eluding Go Native, Paul Carberry's mount trailing home a disappointing 10th.

Maybe the day's most stirring roar accompanied Sizing Europe and Andrew Lynch home in the Arkle. For here, too, was a horse whose story had lurched from impending glory to parody.

Two years ago, he arrived at the second last in the Champion Hurdle on gossamer hooves, but ricked his back so badly at jump that he would finish back amidst the stragglers in 14th place. Last year, he never even got to run because of transit fever.

This, then, was a day that Henry de Bromhead barely dared to dream of.

The Waterford trainer is regarded as one of the most gentlemanly people in National Hunt, yet he is alive too to its frequent injustice. And, yesterday, he offered little glimpses of the hurt that can deposit.

Asked about the horse's recent catalogue of mishaps, De Bromhead almost reluctantly took up the bait of answering criticism that had, at times, bordered on a sneer.

Determined

"He's always been determined," he said of Sizing Europe. "All these guys . . . anyway . . . he's always been determined. Absolutely, he's tough out."

But, did it irk him when newspapers questioned the horse's resolution?

"Of course it does," he sighed. "He's like one of our children and he's been phenomenal for us. He's put us on the map and just been an unbelievable horse. He's an over 50pc win strike-rate. He's been savage for us."

This time, two from home, Lynch was almost tempted to apply a hand-brake. Two years later than planned, Sizing Europe had found his stride.

And, as the gloaming crept down, almost lost in the bedlam were the beautiful stories of two jockeys at opposite ends of this business. Adrian Heskin, a 7lb claimer, pushed Michael Hourigan's A New Story to victory in the cross-country and, finally, Ruby Walsh stamped his name in history, Quevega's victory in the last registering his 25th festival win and equalling Pat Taaffe's record.

Three Irish victories, then. But not the one that was written in the stars.

Irish Independent

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