GUBU Friday serves up feast of thrills, spills and incredible tales
The final day's action at Cheltenham was as exciting as they come, writes Ian McClean
Ubiquitous photographer Pat Healy glided by in the packed Cheltenham parade ring mid-Friday afternoon. "John B Keane couldn't have wrote it," he quipped. Yet even then, we didn't know the half the story that was unfolding in the Cotswolds cauldron on racing's pinnacle Gold Cup day.
Maybe it was the playfully mocking spirit of Arkle returned 50 years after winning the first of three Gold Cups, but even for a game so intrinsically wedded to chance, Gold Cup Friday 2014 took on an incredulous aura reflective of the GUBU moniker from the Haughey era – Grotesque, Unbelievable, Bizarre and Unprecedented.
Even the canny evergreens of the sport were dividing their attention as the afternoon progressed between head-scratching and head-shaking.
Gigginstown was barren of winners for three long days and early pre-race focus on Friday was on whether their glass-legged Gold Cup hope Last Instalment would be permitted to take his chance. After a course-walk the run was affirmed but First Lieutenant had lost his appetite and he was withdrawn instead.
The day started inauspiciously for jockeys when Chris Timmons failed a breath-test and had to forfeit his ride on Achtung ("Beware" in German, we should have taken the subliminal hint) in the Triumph. The meeting already had a pall cast over it when Jason Maguire took a pounding fall at Stratford on Monday's Festival eve. Then Bryan Cooper suffered an horrendous crash to earth in the Fred Winter not long after he had tweeted the irony of how amongst the three winners he rode at last year's Festival he wasn't riding any of them this time round.
A very astute judge from the press room confided on the steps of the weigh-room just before Friday's opening Triumph Hurdle how he hadn't had the whiff of a winner for three days and he was desperately investing in a Ruby Walsh double on Arctic Fire and On His Own to get him out for the meeting as "nobody rides the handicap hurdles on the New Course like him and he's dynamite from the front in a chase".
No sooner uttered than leading jockey Ruby Walsh reached the third flight in front of the stands in the Triumph and nosedived to the floor on Abbyssial, bringing down a stablemate and teammate Paul Townend in the process. On both day one and day two the Mullins yard had taken the opener (with Vautour and Faugheen) yet on the final day one of the yard's main chances falls and brings down the other – the only two casualties, as it happens, in a field of 15.
Ruby was escorted away with a broken arm and the big screen announced his replacement on Briar Hill and On His Own as Paul Townend. However, Townend wasn't fit to ride either, and the mounts went instead to David Casey, starting with Arctic Fire in the County. The public screen information couldn't keep up with the pace of the jockey-go-round. Casey had no idea then that he would in turn get mashed into the turf on Irish banker Briar Hill before going down by only a short-head in the Gold Cup shortly after.
Daryl Jacob meanwhile was having a thoroughly frustrating time. He could barely conceal his frustration when Southfield Theatre was outshone by a pixel's shadow in the Pertemps Final the previous day and just as he cruised into contention at the second-last in the Triumph, his stirrup-leather freakishly snapped.
It made the gritty ride on Lac Fontana in the very next County Hurdle all the more meritorious to outgun Casey on Arctic Fire in the dying strides.
Lac Fontana was providing Paul Nicholls with his first and only winner of the Festival in the 22nd race of the meeting, yet his post-race paddock reflections were all about Daryl: that he was delighted for his jockey more than anything and how "after that Daryl has got the appetite for more now".
And so Nicholls strolled off to leg up his jockey on Port Melon in the very next race. However, on the way to the start the Jacob/Port Melon partnership had an unscheduled disagreement with a static TV camera which decanted the haplessly unsuspecting rider with enough force to shatter his leg, knee and elbow.
By now the weigh-room was checking the Charity Race riders' roster from the previous evening to see whom it could call on stand-by.
Exactly 12 months ago to the day Davy Russell had punctured a lung from a fall which meant he had to forfeit all rides, amongst them Sir Des Champs in the Gold Cup. After three fruitless days this time round during which he no longer played up front for the Gigginstown team, Davy (by Albert Bartlett time) had already won the Triumph on the maroon-and-white's Tiger Roll, getting the nod for the ride in the absence of the injured Bryan Cooper.
Given the events of the week in general and afternoon in particular, Russell was pointedly philosophical about his trade. "We don't want to see anyone getting injured. But it's only a stride away. That's the line we live on. It was me last year and it's the boys this year. That's our job, these are the risks we take." It was a sobering reflection on the anniversary of JT McNamara's sickening injury.
Russell didn't have an invitation to ride Last Instalment in the Gold Cup and wound up on Lord Windermere instead in light of his Gigginstown demotion. Lord Windermere's trainer Jim Culloty had not had a winner for 196 days before the Festival (Lord Windermere had not won since the RSA at the Festival last year) but the Kim Muir came to the rescue just in time the previous evening with Spring Heeled obliging for the Kerryman.
"Our horses are back in form and have been wrong, so I've hardly had a winner in six months, but this is a good sign," was Culloty's reaction after the Kim Muir but he was having some indifferent views about his jockey halfway through the Gold Cup. "It (the race) was executed brilliantly by Davy, but they were slightly exaggerated waiting tactics and halfway round I was going to give him the sack."
These observations came in a race that had to endure two false starts before getting under way and pound-for-pound is as bizarre a renewal as any since The Thinker in 1987. Notwithstanding the false starts, the winner trailed the field for most of the race. At halfway, he was eight lengths behind the second-last horse, and struggling. Even the course commentator was vocally dubious and betting exchange punters went as far as 300 to lay it.
Lord Windermere was only eighth of the 11 still going at the second last. The first two horses in the market (Bobs Worth and Silviniaco Conti) jumped the last in front, yet neither made the frame. They traded at 1.42 and 1.69 respectively for a win and 1.05 and 1.09 for a place. Something mysterious spooked both halfway up the run-in, causing both to veer in opposite directions.
Meanwhile, those which did make the frame had a barging match which resulted in a hotly-debated stewards' enquiry where you could still back the winner at 1/3 to keep the race ten minutes after it had concluded. Even Russell admitted his ride was a high-risk one. "You try it 100 times and it will work once out of 100 . . . and it just worked for me today."
After Don Poli had notched up a treble for Gigginstown in the Martin Pipe Conditional Riders race, Michael O'Leary was asked if Savello had any chance of winning the last race of the Festival. "I doubt it," he replied. "Tony Martin's horses haven't been running too well all week." Back in the enclosure again after Savello had actually pulled off the Grand Annual at 16/1 from an opening 33s, O'Leary laughed: "You wait for two years to have a winner and then four come along in the space of two hours!" Proving even Captains of Industry don't know everything.
Savello's win meant Ireland won six of the seven races on Gold Cup day, doubling their score for the entire week to end with the second-best ever total at the Festival on 12.
The jockeys' title went down to the very last race with Ruby Walsh clinging on by a fingernail to the title despite his misfortune. It was of little comfort to the intrepid press-man whose get-out-of-jail Ruby double on the final day was flawed by the fact that Ruby didn't in fact take a ride. Rueing his fate as we galloped for the exit after the last, he wondered, "Do you think Ruby would be worth half a length in a County Hurdle and a short-head in a Gold Cup?"
The question, of course, is rhetorical. The mindset one of self-torment. But he, like the rest of us, will doubtless return to the Cotswolds in 12 months for more of the GUBU that makes the Festival so perennially compelling – but never more so than on Friday.
Sunday Indo Sport