JP McManus: Istabraq was special and now Jezki is special
Published 11/03/2014 | 17:58
JP McManus has already owned the modern-day king of the Stan James Champion Hurdle in Istabraq and it was to be another green and gold moment on the opening afternoon at Cheltenham as Jezki repelled My Tent Or Yours by a neck in a famous one-two.
Synonymous with Festival gambles, McManus admitted to backing both of his horses but was quick to offer his condolences to connections of Our Conor, last year's Triumph Hurdle winner who had to be put down after suffering a back injury from a horrible fall at the third flight.
Jezki had finished more than two lengths behind My Tent Or Yours in the 2013 Supreme and had also needed to turn the tables on Hurricane Fly, who was held for fourth in his bid to equal the three Champions claimed by Istabraq at the turn of the century.
Winning trainer Jessica Harrington lodges with Nicky Henderson during Cheltenham week, and as the latter was responsible for My Tent Or Yours, the evening ahead was more than likely to feature some good-natured repartee.
Our Conor set off in front, but his mistake badly hampered The New One and allowed Captain Cee Bee, essentially the McManus pacemaker, to assume his duties.
He lasted until the penultimate flight, where supporters of 11-4 favourite Hurricane Fly were starting to get anxious as Ruby Walsh was already applying the pressure and the Barry Geraghty-ridden Jezki had secured a narrow advantage.
Tony McCoy, who had picked My Tent Or Yours over Jezki, was within touching distance himself but the white cap of McManus' retained jockey could never get past the quartered green and gold, as much as he tried, with the race run in a new record time, bettering that of Vautour from earlier in the day, which had itself eclipsed the mark set by Istabraq.
McManus said: "The National Hunt season is centred around the Champion Hurdle for me because I didn't have any Gold Cup horses and I'm unlikely to win the Grand National.
"The Champion Hurdle was all-important and full marks to everybody to have their horses looking in mint condition, as well as all the other runners in the race. They were all a credit."
He went on: "I did back Jezki and My Tent Or Yours, and had a saver on Captain Cee Bee. You just hope for one. I thought AP would pick My Tent, but I did think Jezki had a chance.
"They are all special - Istabraq was special, Binocular was special, and this is special."
McManus and Henderson both publicly spared a thought for Harrington's husband Johnny, who was at home in Ireland due to ill health.
Harrington herself said: "I was lucky enough to win a couple of Queen Mothers with Moscow Flyer and I've been second here with Macs Joy. Now I've got the Champion Hurdle on the CV, I've got to get the Gold Cup!
"We put a hood on today, and I think it helped him to settle. Barry has a great record on him, he's ridden for me since he was a teenager and I think he's ridden all but one of my Festival winners."
"I always had great faith in the horse. He's a smashing horse, he really is."
Harrington said she had not considered a potential outing at Punchestown yet.
Henderson said: "The only person who probably really enjoyed it was JP as at the last he knew he was going to win.
"I feel sorry for AP, as it's always difficult making decisions and getting the wrong one, but they are two good horses.
"Nobody likes finishing second, but that was the person I wanted to finish second to if I had to.
"AP came in and said 'how can he pull that hard and still finish like that?' - you just can't do that."
Asked about targets for the remainder of the season, he said: "There's Ireland (Punchestown), but I'll speak to JP and see what he wants to do.
"I don't think Aintree is an option. Two and a half miles around there isn't going to help us.
"I could go to Royal Ascot. A mile and a half round there would be super! He might not pull that hard there, but he'd enjoy it wouldn't he? I'll discuss it all with JP."
Sam Twiston-Davies, who rode The New One, was frustrated but sanguine, saying: "We didn't have much chance to avoid him (Our Conor). It happened very quickly.
"I think of what might have been. It cost me six lengths and I got beat two.
"I'm delighted for the horse, he tried his best. He's young, he's got time on his side and we're very lucky to have him."
Also trying to remain positive through a defeat which must have hurt was Hurricane Fly's trainer Willie Mullins.
Mullins said: "One disappointing run is not the end of it, and I think he still retains his enthusiasm.
"I think he just got tired, after the second-last I knew the game was up. I hoped he'd pick up, but it didn't happen.
"We will do what we normally do and go on to Punchestown."
Barry Connell had made a huge-money swoop for Our Conor last spring, and he said later: "It's very sad, as he was such a young horse at the beginning of his career.
"It's unfortunate, but it goes with the territory - in this game one minute you can have a winner and the next one of your horses can die.
"I've been in this game 40 years, and one of the reasons everyone loves it is that the highs are very high and the lows are very low."