‘Our Conor was an outstanding horse but that’s racing, we’re over it now’
Highs and lows of National Hunt crystallised by loss of €1m horse but connections consoled as Danny Mullins emerges unscathed
Dessie Hughes wheeled away with the puckered, work-worn face of a man all too accustomed to the ambush of heartbreak.
Our Conor lay dead in the Cotswolds. “He was too brave,” Hughes replied curtly to a timidly-posed question about the fall. Little more than an hour earlier, the most exotic lodger in his stable had been majestic, strolling the enclosure as if it was a catwalk. He looked every inch of what he was. A million-euro superstar.
That had been Barry Connell's reputed investment in a creature now worthless as a used bingo card.
“I'm well used to it, at the game too long,” sighed Hughes, his expression pinched by 33 years in the hard business of training. “And like it'll be terrible to be going by his empty box every morning, but that's life. The jockey is okay and that's important.”
The community of jump racing does its best to remain unemotional and calculated at these junctures.
But just at the very moment that Barry Geraghty was guiding Jezki back to a thronged enclosure behind the grandstand, a realisation dawned that something grave was unfolding on the old course.
A green screen had been placed around Our Conor and would remain erect for close to 25 minutes. The fall had occurred at the same section where JT McNamara sustained catastrophic injuries last year. Connell rushed immediately across, his heart lurching at the signals.
There he found the vets working desperately to save his horse, but Our Conor's back was broken.
“I was there straight away,” he would tell us later, his demeanour remarkably calm. “He wasn't unconscious, but they gave him a sedative straight away and he wasn't in any pain at all.
“The vets were very good, I'd have to say. They were there for 20/25 minutes with him and they gave him every chance and, at the end of the day, there was nothing could be done with him. Fortunately, Danny (Mullins) is a hundred per cent and that's the main thing you know. Unfortunately, this goes with the territory with racing. One minute you have a winner and another minute you can have one that's unfortunately died.”
So how do you sleep the night you lose a million-euro horse?
Connell simply reiterated the communal expression of relief that, at least, his jockey was unscathed. Save an ugly crimson welt on his forehead, Mullins seemed fine after a fall that had drawn loud gasps from the stands just as the Champion Hurdle was still spooling itself out.
It came at the third hurdle, Captain Cee Bee leading the caravan at a strong yet reasoned pace.
Then a flashing blur of yellow and, for Connell, that jolt of sudden terror. A successful hedge fund manager, he has the means to pursue his dream in this domain, but he knows too the tiny margins that can decide whether your day ends in a lightning storm of flashbulbs or by the drab mound of a grim tarpaulin.
Connell was 39 when he started race-riding, yet still fulfilled his dream of pulling on jockey's silks at this Festival. He is hard-nosed and clear-eyed in his understanding of what constitutes real tragedy. His decision to donate all of Our Conor's prize-money for the season to the Jockeys' Emergency Fund articulated that clarity.
Connell made the commitment at a pre-Christmas fundraiser for McNamara and Jonjo Bright, two men now dealing with paralysis.
Winning and losing cease to be epochal matters in proximity to such stories. Being outsprinted up the Cheltenham hill suddenly seems small beer when set against Jason Maguire's fall at Stratford on Monday that left him with a severed liver and fractured sternum.
And even watching the most beautiful horse die doesn't quite enter the same province as seeing a jockey stationary on the ground.
For Ruby Walsh, whose joy at two opening-day victories had been tempered slightly by Hurricane Fly's defeat, perspective thus came rolling in on a strong wind. “It's very disappointing, but it's sport,” he said after guiding Quevega to history in the guise of an unprecedented sixth Festival win.
“I'm sure the connections of Our Conor would prefer that Danny Mullins got up. You know what I mean, horses are horses. It's sad but horses are animals, they live outside the back door. Humans are humans, they're inside your back door. You can't replace a human. When you look at what happened John Thomas here last year; Jason Maguire was a lucky man last night.
“Horses can be replaced. It's sad, but it's not on the same monument of sad as humans. That's my feeling on it.”
Connell was of similar mind.
In this business, the temptation to treat such animals as family pets is one always best resisted. Standing in the unsaddling enclosure after Foxrock's defeat in the sixth, Connell recalled watching another of his horses, Buck Whaley, perish in the '06 County Hurdle. When you write a cheque in this game, you all but roll a dice.
“That was a similar fall,” he reflected flatly. “Jumped the second last in third or fourth. I knew when he hit the ground that more than likely that was it. So I ran up to him and it was the same outcome.
“Look, I've been in this game for 40 years and you can either be down there with the dead one or in there with the winner. That's why everyone loves the game, it's the highs and lows.
“Unfortunately, there's casualties and it's very sad for all the people concerned. And particularly for the stable lass who was down there with him. She's very attached to them. Horses get the best possible care during their racing career and nobody wants to see this happen.
“But unfortunately it does happen from time to time and it's very sad when it does.
“He (Our Conor) was only a baby like. You know it's different if he loses a handicap chase or he's at the end of his career, but it's just a bit annoying when you have unfulfilled potential there. And everyone knows what he was capable of. He walked around the ring today in the form of his life. You know, didn't turn a hair temperament-wise, but... that's the way the cookie crumbles.”
It is a high-wire act these people play here, without the comfort of a net. And, sometimes, that danger is crystallised in one moment. Dessie Hughes' name will always be linked with the race that took his star yesterday for the storied days his beloved Monksfield would go to war to war with Sea Pigeon and Night Nurse.
“He (Our Conor) was an outstanding horse, but it's jump racing and we're over it now,” he said softly last night.
And, deep down, you knew that part of him was lying.