Nothing comes easy when you're in it for the long run
Sam Waley-Cohen's Gold Cup glory the product of blood, sweat and tears, just like every other success at the top, writes Will Hayler
In the spectrum of sporting achievements by amateurs, Sam Waley-Cohen's victory aboard Long Run in the Gold Cup is no rags-to-riches story. Asked recently if he was a millionaire, Waley-Cohen replied: "It depends how you count it."
But, despite having the advantages of a wealthy father to buy him a top-class horse to ride and a career that allows him to spend some of his time at the stables and plenty more in the gym, the 28-year-old's performance in the saddle should not be underestimated and the race must go down as one of the great Gold Cups.
It was certainly a fitting finale for a Cheltenham Festival long on highlights to entertain the 223,748 who packed the stands over the four days, queued for the toilets and relished the drama.
Yes, Waley-Cohen is no CB Fry, the ultimate amateur sportsman, who represented England at football and cricket and equalled the world long-jump record, but the level of skill, fitness and judgment required to win a Gold Cup does not come without hours, days, weeks, months and years of hard work.
Sport's shift towards professionalism in recent years makes the achievement even worthier of celebration. Amateur golfers cannot wait to turn pro and start cashing cheques. Rugby players aren't solicitors or army majors. Even the referees are not schoolteachers or dentists anymore.
Waley-Cohen travelled yesterday to see Long Run at Nicky Henderson's stables, having been let off his one booked ride at Ffos Las. Victory came at the end of a difficult week for Henderson, for whom the win puts him in with a fine chance of a third trainers' title and the opportunity to break the recent dominance of Paul Nicholls, particularly if Long Run goes on to run at Aintree next month.
The controversial withdrawal of Binocular from the Champion Hurdle, combined with the British Horseracing Authority's decision to apply extra testing to his horses and not being able to buy a winner for the first three days of the meeting, meant Henderson was pushed to the hilt.
As well as being one of the outstanding jumps trainers of the past three decades and more, Henderson is a likable and articulate character who gives generously of his time and always wears his heart on his sleeve.
Perhaps that is why, when attempting to ask a legitimate if unsettling question about his stable's medical procedures at the post-Gold Cup press conference, one reporter was shouted down by another writer.
Racing must not be afraid of looking below its waterline for fear of finding a leak, or it may be too late to repair the damage.
Having already met censure from the BHA over the quality of his medical bookkeeping, and with the prospect of further action hanging over him, Long Run's victory will hopefully mark a watershed for Henderson, who kept faith in the horse when others still held doubts.
The appointment of a public relations advisor might help. Although Henderson probably did not see the harm in telling one and all after his first winner that he had backed himself at 16/1 to draw a blank at the meeting "as an insurance policy", one wonders how England fans might have reacted had Wayne Rooney returned from last year's World Cup to cash in a bet that he would fail to score a goal at the tournament.
Despite ultimately playing only supporting roles in the Gold Cup, for many it was the performance of the previous champions Denman and Kauto Star that made the race so special. Denman stays in training next season, to the delight of his owner, Paul Barber.
Decisions are still to be taken on Kauto Star, but the choice to go against the widely held belief that he would be ridden very conservatively and push him up to challenge for the lead at the halfway stage saw him spark back to life. He jumped as well as ever and thoroughly deserved to hold on for third place.
Not that Denman and Kauto Star were the only former champions to find that the unique Cheltenham challenge reignited the fire. Denman was running at the Festival for the sixth time, but it was a seventh consecutive visit for the David Pipe-trained Buena Vista, which landed the Pertemps Final under an inspired ride from Colm O'Farrell, and Big Buck's, Quevega and Albertas Run all won at the meeting for the third time.
Albertas Run's performance in the Ryanair Chase was reminiscent of Monty Python's Black Knight. One by one, they came to him and tried to tear off a strip, but he responded to each challenge by pulling out more. In contrast, Quevega was serene in her third consecutive win in the David Nicholson Mares' Hurdle.
Willie Mullins is thinking of the two-and-a-half-mile Aintree Hurdle for Thousand Stars, a game fourth in the Champion Hurdle behind hugely talented stablemate Hurricane Fly. Perhaps Nicholls and owner Andy Stewart could be persuaded to drop the outstanding Big Buck's down in trip for the same race, rather than mopping up another race over three miles-plus. It would be a sporting challenge and, as we know, racing just loves them.
Sunday Indo Sport