Monday 29 December 2014

Quevega the standout in Festival full of thrills and spills

Mullins' heroine earns place in our hearts – along with Johnson's sporting gesture

Rachel Wyse

Published 15/03/2014 | 02:30

Ruby Walsh on Quevega celebrates after winning the Mares' Hurdle Race during the Cheltenham Festival horse racing meet in Gloucestershire, western England March 11, 2014. REUTERS/Eddie Keogh (BRITAIN - Tags: SPORT HORSE RACING)
Ruby Walsh on Quevega celebrates after winning the Mares' Hurdle Race during the Cheltenham Festival horse racing meet in Gloucestershire, western England March 11, 2014. REUTERS/Eddie Keogh (BRITAIN - Tags: SPORT HORSE RACING)

When you are running the rule over the 2014 Cheltenham Festival in years to come, the big headlines will spring to mind first: Big Buck's bows out, Jezki blows past Hurricane Fly, Sire De Grugy makes Gary Moore cry and a Gold Cup day never to forget.

But dig a little deeper into the recesses of your memory and pluck out Quevega. What a heroine. To come to Cheltenham and win the same race six years in a row is simply extraordinary.

Willie Mullins' handling of the little bay mare is one of the great training performances of all time. It's clearly not straightforward to produce such a wonder – remarkably, she has run just 17 times since she first appeared in Ireland in February 2008. I don't know whether she is vulnerable physically or mentally – we don't hear a lot about her outside of her two races a year.

She hasn't been beaten since Mullins ran her in her native France in May 2009; since then her only appearances have been at the Cheltenham and Punchestown Festivals, and she has won every single time.

Tough and determined as she is, Quevega is wily enough just to do enough to win. She and Ruby Walsh are old friends and he knows exactly when to press the button.

How tempting it must have been to take advantage of her mares' weight allowance and chuck her in against the boys. And how right Mullins has been to resist that temptation.

So what if we never really know just how good she is – or might have been? She has given her owners the incredible thrill of six straight Festival wins, and has carved herself a place in history as the horse with most wins in Festival history, overtaking the great Golden Miller and his five Gold Cups.

Quevega is 10 years old, but so lightly raced that who's to say she couldn't come back next year and do it again? Forget Frankie Dettori, that really would be a Magnificent Seven.

PEDESTALS

It's always sad to see sporting heroes knocked off their pedestals. But in racing it is almost inevitable. National Hunt horses give so much, coming back year after year to gallop and jump their hearts out, only for age and injury to blunt their sharpness.

Big Buck's has been the best staying hurdler of several generations, and it was lovely to see the Cheltenham crowd acknowledge that by applauding him in defeat.

The Ladbrokes World Hurdle was snatched not by Annie Power, as many people expected, but by the Jonjo O'Neill-trained More Of That. It was a second Grade One winner of the meeting for JP McManus, after Jezki in the Stan James Champion Hurdle on Tuesday.

AP McCoy, McManus' retained jockey, wasn't on either of them, having chosen to ride My Tent Or Yours in the Champion Hurdle and At Fishers Cross in the World Hurdle. So Barry Geraghty slipped into the saddle as supersub and edged his Cheltenham Festival total of winners up to 31.

McCoy, clearly in considerable pain after being brought down on Goodwood Mirage in the Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle on Wednesday, used all his grit to coax a win out of Taquin Du Seuil in the JLT Novices' Chase first thing on Thursday. But his first reaction was to express his guilt at having beaten a horse of McManus' into second!

When asked how much he was hurting, AP replied, "not as much as Bryan Cooper," who broke his leg when falling in the same race as AP the previous day.

Last year Cooper was the toast of Cheltenham with three winners – it just goes to show how fickle and cruel the gods of racing can be!

And if Cooper deserves our sympathy, spare a thought for poor Ruby Walsh, Daryl Jacob and Jason Maguire, all of whom suffered dreadful injuries.

It will be a long road back to recovery for all three and I wish them and his families the very best.

On a brighter note, one of my happiest memories of this year's Festival will be of watching what looked like every jockey in the weighing-room coming out to cheer their colleague Jamie Moore back into the winner's enclosure after Sire De Grugy's BetVictor Queen Mother Champion Chase victory. The Moore family, Sire De Grugy and his enthusiastic team of owners have been one of the fairytale stories of this winter, and it was crowned by Cheltenham glory.

Jamie Moore has plugged along in the shadow of his megastar Flat jockey brother Ryan as a 'journeyman' jump jockey. This was his moment in the sun and he thoroughly deserves it. The emotion his father Gary felt at having trained a Champion Chase winner and having sired the jockey who rode it was palpable. The Moores are some of racing's good people – and it doesn't hurt for the general public to see that not everyone in the sport is either posh or Irish!

And Richard Johnson's reaction when it was announced that the photo-finish in the Pertemps Network Final had gone his and Fingal Bay's way was exceptionally graceful and impressive.

DISTRAUGHT

Daryl Jacob was obviously distraught not to have won for Paul Nicholls on Southfield Theatre, and Johnson's first thought was to touch Jacob's arm and speak quietly to him, offering solace. It was a truly sporting gesture and one far removed from the histrionics we see in other sports.

I had a brilliant, busy week as Cheltenham's ambassador. It's a huge honour to represent this wonderful meeting and a privilege to be associated with such equine and human talent. The crowds seem to get bigger and more enthusiastic year after year – Tuesday felt nearly as busy as Friday this time.

One of my fun tasks was helping judge the fashion competition on Ladies' Day (Wednesday); luckily the sun was shining and memories of the freezing temperatures of 2013 are at last fading!

If only the Champion Hurdle had been run on Ladies' Day. Jessica Harrington became only the second woman to train a Champion Hurdle winner, after Mercy Rimell with Gaye Brief in 1983. Only the Gold Cup escapes her so far out of Cheltenham's Big Three of Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase and Gold Cup.

Cheltenham is having a facelift after this meeting and I can't wait to see what it looks like. It seems odd to be looking forward to next year's Festival already – after all, we've got the treats of Aintree and Punchestown just round the corner.

But this week is carved into the calendar as unmissable for all fans of jump racing and will be for all the years to come. Roll on Cheltenham 2015!

Irish Independent

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