Vincent Hogan: Cometh the hour, cometh the iron man
As a last drum-roll to the battle looming in this corner of Gloucestershire, yesterday was beat- perfect.
There is a stop-gap feel to the Thursday card at Cheltenham. It has become a virtual suspension of business with four handicap races acting as filler around two Grade Ones, the first of which -- the Ryanair Chase -- yesterday looked a convalescence home for horses who've had their spirits broken by Kauto Star, Denman or Master Minded.
That and the Ladbrokes World Hurdle, essentially, carry the festival through a little, sedentary, third-day lapse and how apposite that the winners of those races were coaxed home by Tony McCoy and Ruby Walsh.
For this whole week has, in a sense, been one momentous intake of breath leading to the business booked in beside these jockeys' names for 3.20pm today. The collision of Ditcheat's most exotic lodgers in the Gold Cup has the steeplechasing community agog as the two best chasers in the game prepare to go to war with the two best horsemen on their backs.
It promises the perfect, final punctuation mark on a week in which the betting ring has left deep and wounding scars.
On a day that the Irish drew a rare blank, McCoy's victory on 14/1 shot, Albertas Run, was as notable for the defeat of yet another short-priced favourite, Poquelin (11/4), as it was vindication of Jonjo O'Neill's decision to take his horse out of Kauto Star's line of fire.
Walsh brought Poquelin to the post a hard-fighting second, having trailed home on Rivaliste and the fancied Alfie Sherrin in the first and second races respectively. With punters seemingly drawn down an endless warren of cul-de-sacs, there must have been a few dry throats as Big Buck's headed out at 5/6 to defend the World Hurdle.
Beforehand, Walsh had playfully tossed the pink armband that denotes leading rider of the festival to McCoy. And, as soon as Big Buck's delivered a glimpse of almost perfunctory perfection, McCoy had returned it. "He was taking the piss out of me," chuckled Ruby.
The two are, of course, good friends who would quite cheerfully throttle one another for a win. In a sense, they exist in a private world. Yesterday, McCoy had a horrendous fall on Jered at the first hurdle in the first, getting kicked by Noel Meade's other mount, Nicanor, as he tumbled.
It took him a while to get back to his feet and, when he did, it was like a man who had clambered out of a car wreck. They brought him to the medical room, stitched a wound in his chin and checked him for broken bones. There were none, but McCoy was in serious pain.
Walsh tells a story of their early days on the circuit and a trip they made from his friend's Lambourn home to Kempton races. McCoy's collar-bone was broken, yet he was determined to ride.
They stopped at a BP service station in Bracknell, where McCoy took himself to the toilet to throw up he was in such agony. Yet, later that day, he rode a double.
Yesterday, after guiding Albertas Run home, McCoy was asked how he felt immediately after the Jered fall. "Well I wasn't dead and I didn't think anything was broken," he shrugged impassively.
It wasn't bravado because the authentically hard don't require it. Blood seeping from the plaster on his chin, McCoy just broke the logic of the moment down into pretty simple components. "I had a bit of a sore head and sore neck and sore back, but I could get up," he sighed.
"So I mean, if you can get up and you can get on a horse and you feel that you're going to be able to push it and do it justice, then you should ride it, shouldn't you?"
It was a question, frankly, addressed to the wrong people.
From the small forest of media folk sprang an incendiary question. His mishap with Denman at Newbury. Had he, perhaps, had time to reflect? "It's history. Gone!" snapped the 14-times champion. And he was.
After Big Buck's icily restrained victory, Walsh was presented with a trophy recognising his new status as the most successful jockey in festival history. Asked what the achievement meant to him, Ruby's face lightened towards a grin and he chuckled "It's great. If I could just get AP to retire now, I'd be able to hang onto it for a bit.
"No it's a great achievement and something I never thought I'd do."
Walsh and McCoy, the authority of their work seeps into just about every front-page story here. Both can be distant and uncommunicative. Both can be hospitable and warm. Their intelligence is palpable, but beyond that? We know them, essentially, only by their deeds.
McCoy said of the battle now looming: "It's going to be a great race and, obviously, it'll be a better race if Denman beats Kauto Star. I think every racing enthusiast should be looking forward to it. I know I am!"
And Walsh played down the idea that Big Buck's win might have settled a few nerves in the Kauto Star camp after a week that has reaped carnage on short-priced favourites, so many of them in the Nicholls yard.
Nor had he much appetite for painting the job he does as any kind of rescue mission for punters. "Politically, I should probably say 'Yes'," he smiled. "But you're not riding for the crowd. I mean I'm riding for myself, for my boss and for the owner.
"And whether he's favourite or not is irrelevant. You probably get a bigger roar, but sure that's people talking through their pockets, betting through their pockets. That's punting."
Nice to see a hot favourite oblige at last, though?
"Well, I hope he's not the last one!"