Gold Cup heroics take heavy toll on Don
Cossack's cruel injury setback reflects season's recurring theme
As the jumps season comes to a climax this week, we have again been starkly reminded of the inherently capricious nature of the game.
On Saturday, having been a 1/10 hotpot two weeks earlier, Willie Mullins' gallant effort to claim a landmark British trainers' championship hit the rocks.
Earlier in the day, Thistlecrack had been ruled out of this week's Punchestown Festival due to a foot infection, and then yesterday it emerged that Don Cossack has succumbed to a tendon injury.
Mullins' near-miss was galling to witness, but he was the master of his own destiny. The chance was there and, while you can rue incidents of hard luck such as Vautour's fall, that's racing.
In the end, it just wasn't meant to be. Similarly, while Thistlecrack's misfortune is regrettable, especially so for Punchestown, his injury is innocuous. He will be back in the autumn and Mullins has expressed his desire to have another cut at the championship.
We have been saying all along that the chance might not come round again, but, if what happened this time came about almost as an afterthought, then we shouldn't underestimate a calculated charge by Mullins.
Sadly, the outlook for Gordon Elliott's Don Cossack looks far more bleak. Not only will he miss what promised to be a definitive showdown with Cue Card in Wednesday's Bibby Financial Services Gold Cup, but, reading between the lines, he may not race next season - or even again.
At the end of a campaign that has illustrated in equal measure jump racing's capacity to provide thrilling sporting theatre and its lamentable rate of attrition, Don Cossack's lot is a fitting parable.
Since his 26-length destruction of Cue Card in last year's Melling Chase, he has soared at an exalted level, culminating in last month's Gold Cup success. His only setback in seven outings in that time came when he made that dramatic exit as he chased down Vautour and Cue Card in the King George.
Elliott has done some job to maintain such high standards of performance, with Don Cossack's only other reversal in five further starts over the past two seasons coming when he was third in the 2015 Ryanair Chase. Invariably, though, winning championship races comes at a cost.
As alluded to by Eddie O'Leary, War Of Attrition's injury woes denied him a second tilt at the Gold Cup, and there is no doubt the repeat appearances of recent champions like Best Mate, Kauto Star, Istabraq, Hurricane Fly and Big Buck's were exceptions to the rule. That was a truly golden era.
When pushed to extremes against the highest calibre of opposition on an undulating track that tests every facet of a horse's athleticism and temperament, a price is invariably paid.
They have to go through the pain barrier and, while at times the physical toll doesn't immediately come to light, often when it does connections will trace the source of the trauma back to exertions in Prestbury Park the previous March.
That's what happened with War Of Attrition 10 years ago, and it's what happened with Coneygree. The Gold Cup is the sport's most thorough examination. Others like Bobs Worth, Lord Windermere, Long Run and Imperial Commander were never the same force after winning it. Don Cossack powered home for Bryan Cooper in March, but no Gold Cup is easily won.
Hopefully he will race again, but next term could be a write-off; he will be rising 11 years of age for the following campaign, so we may have seen the last of him.
While that would be a pity, there is some solace in knowing that he at least reaffirmed Elliott's credentials as a big-race trainer by fulfilling all of his faith in him in such glorious fashion.
Remember, Elliott also lost the closest thing he had to another Gold Cup prospect when Gigginstown's No More Heroes was fatally injured at Cheltenham.
This is cruel blow on the back of that, but he is a man whose ambition is plainly matched by talent and determination. He will bounce back. Of course, Sprinter Sacre has defied the old adage that injured horses never come back. One of the best two-mile chasers ever, he was majestic again on Saturday, as Un De Sceaux simply couldn't cope with his pace and jumping prowess.
As was the case at Cheltenham, though, Un De Sceaux's grit in clinging on for second was admirable, especially after his shuddering Pond fence blunder. The difference with Sprinter Sacre - and hopefully Faugheen - is that he is a two-miler. There aren't the same gruelling demands on their bodies as there are on staying chasers.
If Don Cossack's racing days are done, then, he bows out at the very top of a pugilistic discipline that ultimately brought out the best in him. That's some legacy for a horse who some dared to label 'soft' in his younger days.
'Vroum Vroum' adds to punchestown
Punchestown will miss Thistlecrack and Don Cossack, but it has gained Vroum Vroum Mag.
After Voix Du Reve, Valseur Lido and Un De Sceaux could manage only runner-up finishes in the first three races at Sandown on Saturday, it was another runner-up, Paul Nicholls's Just A Par, that finally did for Willie Mullins's title challenge in the Bet365 Gold Cup.
He combined with Bryan Cooper to take the last race of the British season with McKinley, but not before courting controversy by withdrawing Vroum Vroum Mag after the title was lost.
Mullins was fined £1,000 for showing "wilful disregard" for punters.
He robustly defended his decision to scratch the mare on the basis that she was only there to aid the title quest, and that there are more valuable events to be won at home, namely Thursday's World Hurdle.
In short, he paid for his honesty, as Nicholls also scratched later runners at no expense, citing the change in going.
Mullins has declared Vautour for tomorrow's Boylesports Champion Chase, and the joke doing the rounds after the news broke of Don Cossack's injury was that he might now employ a similar rationale to redirect the Ryanair Chase victor to Wednesday's three-mile feature.
Mullins is clearly intent on not over-racing Vautour this term.
That might frustrate fans eager to see him campaigned boldly, but it won't be lost on Mullins that a similar approach eventually yielded a rich dividend for Don Cossack.
Tomorrow, Vautour will be long odds-on to beat seven rivals under the returning Ruby Walsh, while Yorkhill will be similarly short to complete the Cheltenham-Aintree-Punchestown hat-trick in the Herald Novices' Hurdle.
Mullins also has the market leader for the Growise Champion Chase in the Cooper-ridden Outlander, which is one of nine declared for the three-miler.
Last year, the champion trainer won 10 of the 12 Grade Ones at the meeting. Given events of recent weeks, he is unlikely to be so prolific this time.
Still, he needs just three to beat last year's record of 30 Grade One victories in a season. That looks a formality.
Tweet of the weekend
Harry Derham (@Harry05Derham)
1st text I got when result was confirmed from Patrick Mullins, incredibly gracious in defeat and a true gentleman. Great result for team PN
Paul Nicholls' nephew and assistant reveals the magnanimous gesture of Willie Mullins's son and assistant.
235: Richard Johnson's tally on finally being crowned champion. It is the fifth largest total ever; only AP McCoy can top it. Peter Scudamore, in 1989, is the only other jockey to ride 200 winners.