Back from the brink
David Jennings on the heartwarming outcome for Edwulf after last year's Festival
From the thrill to the tragedy to the triumph. Edwulf did not win the JT McNamara National Hunt Challenge Cup at last year's Festival, despite looking as though he would for so long, but the end result was so much more satisfying than victory. Edwulf survived, against all expectations, and defied the odds again to become a contender for this year's Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Let's take you to the start of the four-mile marathon. Edwulf is trying to give owner JP McManus and jockey Derek O'Connor back-to-back victories in a race they won with Minella Rocco in 2016. The eight-year-old, trained by Joseph O'Brien, goes off at 5-1.
Edwulf spends the first half of the race at the back before O'Connor, in customary creeping style, begins picking them off one by one. "He gave me a great feel the whole way," he recalls.
"Coming down the hill for the final time, when we started to pass horses, I was really getting excited. I thought we were going as well as anything and we'd have a big say in the finish. I dearly wanted to win it, all the more with it being named in honour of John Thomas."
Edwulf got by everything bar Tiger Roll. Turning for home he took aim at the leader. To some eyes it seemed only a matter of time before he would overtake Lisa O'Neill on the Gordon Elliott- trained seven-year-old. Indeed, he traded at a low of 1.56 in-running. There was the strangest of scripts written for Edwulf, though.
An awkward landing at the second-last led to him losing ground on Tiger Roll. The tide had turned. Now the chase was looking in vain. A tired leap at the last ended any hopes of him winning the race but the run-in soon turned into a lifesaving journey rather than a race-winning one.
O'Connor continues: "We jumped the last in second. I knew we didn't have much hope of catching Lisa on Tiger Roll but we were definitely going to be second. All of a sudden I felt the horse weaken underneath me. He began to stagger and it was obvious he wasn't going to recover his action. I pulled him up and he collapsed."
From wanting to score to simply wanting to survive.
"I was sure he was gone," admits trainer O'Brien. "When a horse collapses like that you fear the worst. It is only natural. I'd gone from thinking he might win to thinking we had lost him.
"I knew he was in the best possible care, though. The vets were top class. They did everything in their power. I couldn't say enough good things about them. This was something extraordinary."
Extraordinary indeed. Edwulf was down and seriously distressed. His chaotic heartbeat was not in rhythm and he began to have a fit due to starvation of oxygen to the brain. He was convulsing and shaking. Grand National hero Many Clouds had lost his life after winning the Cotswold Chase a few weeks earlier and a similarly sad outcome looked in store.
Screens were erected and behind them began a rescue mission led by Liam Kearns, the head vet at the course. Kearns had eight talented vets on his team, including David Chalkley and Henry Tremaine, who were first on the scene. Edwulf was in healing hands.
A sedative was swiftly administered by Tremaine to stop the shaking, followed by a painkiller, but Edwulf was not making any effort to stand and he became less and less responsive. "It did look as if he had serious neurological problems," Kearns said. "Normally, when you tap a horse on the skin close to the eye you get a blink. He didn't. He had some sort of neurological episode, the exact cause of which we are still not sure, a temporary lack of blood supply and oxygen to the brain. It can be fatal without treatment."
Luckily for Edwulf, treatment was quick and extensive. The care he received was remarkable and the recovery even more so. It took 70 minutes to see progress but eventually he wobbled to his feet. Edwulf was taken straight to the Three Counties Equine Hospital, near Tewkesbury, with a police escort. They arrived at 7.30pm and by 7.30am on Saturday he was prancing around the paddock at the equine hospital like a newly-born foal. Mission complete.
"To have a horse down like that, it's way out of the ordinary. I've not known anything like it, when a horse has recovered from being on its side for so long," Kearns says of the episode. "When you have a successful outcome it's fantastic."
O'Connor was highly impressed by the way the vets managed to revive Edwulf and overwhelmed by the public support.
"There must have been half a dozen vets in attendance, and they were of the opinion he'd run out of oxygen and was suffering from palpitations. As they treated him many racegoers came down to find out if there was any news. I chatted to them and they were so genuinely concerned. They were as thrilled as all the connections when Edwulf began to revive."
Nobody was more thrilled than O'Brien, who had a top chaser back in his stable within days. "I thought we'd lost him. I can't describe the feeling of getting him back. It highlights just how good the vets are - it was an incredible effort from all concerned."
Equally incredible has been Edwulf's progress since. A return to action at Leopardstown at Christmas went satisfactorily but in no way prepared expectations for what happened when he returned to the Dublin course in February for the Unibet Irish Gold Cup. Patiently ridden by O'Connor, he accelerated from the last and put his nose in front on the line. He will return to the Festival as a genuine contender for the Cheltenham Gold Cup but, above all, a healthy horse.
Who is your sportstar of the year?
Vote in the Irish Independent Sport Star Awards and you could win the ultimate sports prize.
Prizes include, a trip to Old Trafford to watch Man United take on Liverpool in the Premier League, tickets to Ireland's home games in the Six Nations, All Ireland football and hurling final tickets and much more.