Geraghty drives Jezki home in Champion style
Harrington’s battling star holds off rivals as Our Conor suffers fatal fall
Barry Geraghty and Jessica Harrington rolled back the years to claim a famous Stan James Champion Hurdle triumph with Jezki on a mesmerising afternoon in Cheltenham.
Pitched as potentially epic affair, with Hurricane Fly vying to reaffirm his status as top dog against a bunch of rising stars, the two-mile showpiece lost much of its gloss as Our Conor crashed out when in front at the third flight. Danny Mullins soon got up unscathed.
Sadly, last year's runaway Triumph Hurdle hero never rose. He suffered a serious back injury and had to be put down, while he also stopped The New One in his tracks as he fell.
Inevitably, that proved to be the race's crucial incident. Apart from the loss of Our Conor, The New One's chance was compromised irrevocably. He ultimately did brilliantly to finish with a real flourish for third, but the damage was long done at that stage.
Still, that shouldn't overly detract from the improved turn of Jezki. He hasn't quite cut it at this level up to now, but Harrington firmly believed that she could eke more out of him.
The wily handler put a hood on him yesterday to help him settle better, and, when AP McCoy opted for My Tent Or Yours, she turned to Geraghty, her trusty old big-race sidekick who had ridden the exceptional Moscow Flyer to three gilt-edged wins for her here.
Geraghty has more recently exhibited his sublime talents on Nicky Henderson's elite battalion, so there was a certain inevitability about how things unfolded. Despite McCoy's best efforts, the Henderson-trained My Tent Or Yours raced as free as a bird from the off.
On the final punishing ascent, he simply didn't have the reserves to match Jezki, which prevailed bravely by three-parts of a length.
Geraghty, a man who emits such calm on these fraught occasions, judged it all to a nicety, vindicating Harrington's faith with aplomb.
He is now unbeaten on the the six-year-old in five outings. Few called the 9/1 shot as the one that would deliver JP McManus a record fifth win in the £240,000 event, though Harrington told anyone that would listen he was no forlorn hope.
“It's fantastic to be in this position,” the Moone-based Kildare handler said of her return to the limelight.
“Jezki is a great favourite of mine and Barry has a great record on him. I felt his two previous races were a bit messy, and at Christmas if he hadn't got shut off we might have beaten Hurricane Fly. He had little bits of excuses in defeat, but today it all came right. It's big to win any championship race here.
“I’ve won two Champion Chases. Now I want to put the Gold Cup on my CV – although that will be hard to do!”
Geraghty was winning the marquee Grade One for a second time having also edged Punjabi home for Henderson.
“Fair play to AP, he said congrats before we even pulled up,” the Meath native said afterwards. “I have been riding for Jessie since I was 17 or 18 and she has been great to me over the years. It’s brilliant to be back here for her again.”
Hurricane Fly joined issue with Jezki two-out. However, 10-year-olds have a poor record in this for a reason, and he soon laboured alongside his younger rivals.
Tellingly, in clocking 3m 45.25s on drying ground, the winner shaved nearly three seconds off Istabraq’s record time, which Vautour also toppled with a barnstorming Supreme Novices’ Hurdle victory.
“I’m disappointed,” Mullins said of his vanquished dual champion.
“I don’t know if it was the ground or what, but one disappointing run isn’t the end of it.”
Ultimately, though, this was another cracking day in Prestbury Park for the champion trainer. Champagne Fever got cruelly chinned by Western Warhorse in a pulsating renewal of the Arkle Trophy, having fenced exquisitely at the head of affairs for Ruby Walsh.
It was a bold bid to secure a third successive Festival win that only reaffirmed the genius of Walsh that we had been privy to on Vautour, for all that Champagne Fever was collared. Walsh was flawless on both greys; the way he orchestrates a race from the front is a gift.
Vautour could yet have the Arkle as his ultimate objective next term. Sent off the 7/2 joint-favourite to get the meeting off to a flying start for the travelling hordes with an emphatic six-length win from Josses Hill and Vaniteux.
“We knew he was a good horse, but I wasn’t quite expecting that,” gushed Mullins of Vautour.
“Once he relaxed a bit and Ruby accepted that he wanted to get on with it, he let him gallop and use his stride. Next thing you know, he was on a different set of rails to the other horses – that’s what I found amazing. He has treated them like a bunch of maidens.”
Of course, there is no fairer maiden than Quevega. After securing her place among the immortals with another last-gasp coup to deny stablemate Glens Melody in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle, the 10-year-old may finally be edging closer to the breeding shed.
“We might be too greedy coming back for that,” Mullins replied when asked if Walsh’s mount would return next year after this unprecedented sixth Festival success. “We’ll have a think and a drink about it. We’ll see.”