With arms tensely folded and not saying a word, ‘Shark’ Hanlon was standing in the middle of the parade ring watching his little wonder horse edge closer and closer to the front of the pack.
It was beginning to look like a Gold Cup miracle – and then Shark clutched his head in true anguish. Hewick had fallen at the last fence, ditching jockey Jordan Gainford before folding over on to his neck in a concertina-like movement. It did not look good.
The Carlow trainer ran from the parade ring towards the track. A friend who had been standing with him, shouting Hewick on, shook his head grimly. “It was a dirty fall,” he said.
But another instalment was yet to come in the rags-to-riches story of the little “people’s horse” with the big heart, bought for €800 and with a fondness for Guinness.
“Hewick is on his feet,” the TV commentator reported, in disbelief.
Shortly afterwards, Shark posted a video of the gallant horse being led by a groom in the stable yard, looking a bit sore and subdued, with his head down but, crucially, all in one piece.
“Here’s Hewick after his fall in the Gold Cup,” Shark said. “Running an absolute blinder – we’re absolutely thrilled with him, and as you can see he is 100pc. Thanks be to God, and thanks to everyone for their support in the last month. These things happen, but we’ll move on.”
Survival is a victory in itself, but the 2-1 favourite, Galopin Des Champs, brought a victorious St Patrick’s Day for the Irish at Cheltenham.
Everywhere I went I was running into trouble
As he was led into the winner’s enclosure, jockey Paul Townend, usually so cool, calm and collected, celebrated his third Gold Cup with arms aloft in triumph.
He had been under pressure in the build-up.
“It wasn’t clean sailing, that’s for sure,” he said. “Everywhere I went I was running into trouble.
“A proper, proper horse because he ran three different races and still won a Gold Cup.”
Only last month, trainer Willie Mullins had publicly criticised Townend at Leopardstown, saying he had ridden Facile Vega “too fast”.
“They were just going too fast, everyone could see they were going too fast. Paul will have to ride him like a racehorse in the future – today he rode him like a machine,” he said.
But all was forgiven yesterday, and for Mullins the win meant more to him than he thought it would.
“I think what stands out is the pressure I put myself under. I was surprised, actually, coming to the third-last how much I started to feel it,” he said.
“When he went through the third-last and I saw Paul back on the bridle again, I thought, ‘Wow, this could happen’, and I was amazed how much it meant to me. I didn’t think it would.
“The pressure was coming from the fact that we had so much confidence in the horse. We nominated him for the Gold Cup, we thought we had a Gold Cup horse and a lot of people were saying he wasn’t because he has too much speed and no stamina.
“There was pressure because we disagreed with everyone. So many people said he wouldn’t stay, which surprised me.
“It was our word against others, and it wasn’t like he was a 10-1 shot. He was a hot favourite and people backed him in the belief that I was right, I suppose.”
Mullins does not take his stellar success for granted. Every night he goes out to the barns to see the quality of his horses, saying: “I pinch myself.”
As the cherry on the cake, he has a ticket for Ireland’s Six Nations rugby match against England this afternoon.
We’ll get a horse called ‘The 16th Man’ eventually
It was a phenomenal day that ended a triumphant week for Irish racing, with a total of 18 Irish winners for nine trainers.
It was also a good one for the punters.
On the course, Kilmacud Crokes All-Ireland club champion player Shane Horan and clubmates Mark Lynskey, Seán Garven and Joe Codd were savouring success after a tough day the previous day.
Horan had backed the Gold Cup winner at 6-4 – “my one win over the two days”, he said. Laughing, he added: “But we’ll get a horse called ‘The 16th Man’ eventually."
It was a nod to the controversy that had dogged the club in the fallout from the club final against Glen in Derry, when they were accused of having an extra player on the pitch for 11 seconds.
Meanwhile, a Kildare punter was celebrating a windfall of €75,026.02 after placing a 0.20c stake and a 0.15c stake bet with Paddy Power on Cheltenham on Thursday.
The bet was an each-way Lucky 63 and an each-way accumulator costing a total of €25.50, but it made 2,942 times that amount.
Paddy Power spokesperson Rachael Kane said: “This lucky punter must have some crystal ball at home to pick four double-figure priced winners among the six selections.”