Sunday 21 April 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Humble jockeys star in greatest show'

Paul Townend and Al Boum Photo are quite rightly the centre of attention after a stunning performance that saw them win the Cheltenham Gold Cup on Friday. Photo: PA
Paul Townend and Al Boum Photo are quite rightly the centre of attention after a stunning performance that saw them win the Cheltenham Gold Cup on Friday. Photo: PA
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Was this the greatest ever Cheltenham? It's hard to think of a better one because this was the Festival with everything. Over four days one stirring story followed another until a special victory crowned a special week.

Willie Mullins is the greatest national hunt trainer there's ever been. Six times he'd been second in the Gold Cup and his quest for the blue riband prize had become like that of Gordon Richards for the Derby or Tony McCoy for the Grand National.

When his best hope Kemboy unseated Willie's nephew David at the first fence and his second best Bellshill pulled up before half-way it seemed the Mullins' hopes had gone for another year. By the trainer's standards it had been a disappointing Cheltenham with just three wins.

Left to carry the flag was Al Boum Photo. The seven-year-old was relatively unfancied but as reigning champion Native River started to struggle and the challenge of favourite Presenting Percy failed to materialise, he forged ahead coming to the last fence.

You wonder how Paul Townend felt as he approached that fence. Eleven months ago he and Al Boum Photo led coming to the final obstacle in the Champion Novice Chase at Punchestown. What happened next became one of Irish racing's most notorious incidences of jockey error.

An apparent brainstorm led Townend to look around and try to bypass the fence. This led to Al Boum Photo crashing into second-placed Finians Oscar, demolishing the wing of the fence and unseating his rider. The subject of both fury and ridicule as well as a 21-day ban, the Midleton man must have wished the ground would swallow him up.

Instead, he literally got back on the horse. Now they were heading towards another fateful final fence. This time they flew over it and Al Boum Photo went on to win by two and a half lengths. "I'd sort of resigned myself to never winning the Gold Cup," Mullins admitted afterwards.

The themes of redemption and recovery seemed to run through a week which was emotionally rewarding in a way major sports events seldom are.

Take the tale of Gavin Cromwell and Espoir D'Allen. The Meath man is a useful trainer but his operation is only in the ha'penny place compared to that of Mullins and Gordon Elliott. So it seemed like a real fairytale when Espoir D'Allen emerged as favourite for last year's Triumph Hurdle. Then disaster struck as the horse finished fourth out of five, 75 lengths behind the winner, in his warm-up race at Fairyhouse.

Espoir D'Allen pulled out of Cheltenham and we forgot about him. A winter with two Grade Three wins at Naas and one at Limerick didn't put him back on the radar. The 16/1 outsider was, like the rest of us, supposed to be a spectator as Buveur D'Air, Apple's Jade and Laurina fought out what promised to be a classic Champion Hurdle.

But after the first of that trio fell and the other two faded, Espoir D'Allen seized the day. Seized it in fact to such an extent that the 15 lengths he had to spare at the finish was a record winning margin in the biggest hurdle of them all. Cromwell is a farrier by trade who up to three years ago had never trained more than five winners in a season.

Riding Espoir D'Allen was another jockey who has known the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Two years ago Mark Walsh looked set to break into elite company when he took the injured Barry Geraghty's rides at the Festival. Instead, he fractured his leg in the first race. Two years previously a broken arm didn't just make him miss Cheltenham, it cost him the Irish jockeys' title. A much under-rated craftsman, Walsh richly deserves his moment in the sun.

Perhaps the sentimental high point of the week was the hour on Thursday which saw wins for Frodon in the Ryanair Chase and Paisley Park in the Stayers' Hurdle. Indeed the abiding image for many people may be the unbridled delight of Bryony Frost after Frodon's victory.

That this was an historic triumph, the first win by a female jockey in a Grade One race at Cheltenham, would have been satisfying enough. But the manner of Frodon's win was even more extraordinary. He'd set the pace from the start but when he was overhauled before the last fence he looked to have nothing more to give. The subsequent rally was reminiscent of Dawn Run's monumental closing effort in the 1986 Gold Cup, Frodon storming back to win by just over a length.

"That minute where he got overtaken two out most horses would quit," Frost declared. "But no, he grabbed me by the hands and said 'don't you dare give up. Don't you dare not send me into the last. I want this more than you, now come on.'"

The 23-year-old Devon woman is one of life's enthusiasts and conjures up memories of those heroines from Hitchock's black and white British movies, vanquishing spies and villains through sheer force of pluck. Instead of Michael Redgrave to help her, she has Frodon.

Yet her perpetually sunny disposition masks a huge toughness. Last year a fall at Newton Abbot left Frost with a cracked sternum, a lacerated pancreas, a liver aneurysm, cracked and broken vertebrae and other internal damage which put her out for three months. The word 'brave' tends to get bandied about for all kinds of trivial achievements these days but Bryony Frost possesses the raw real thing.

Anyone feeling a bit teary after her victory was probably pushed over the edge in the next race when Paisley Park triumphed for his blind-since-birth owner Andrew Gemmell. Yet how unlikely such a conclusion seemed when the favourite appeared to have drifted out of contention three from home. You sensed the commentators preparing to declare, 'Paisley Park is beaten'.

There followed perhaps the most dramatic transformation of the Festival, Paisley Park powering past everyone to lead with just the final fence to go. The fact of ploughing through rather than jumping this final fence could not stop him as he rampaged home for Aidan Coleman, the Innishannon jockey having his first Festival win in a decade.

Gemmell's joy gladdened the heart and was also a reminder of how seldom we see a blind person centre stage on television. This was not a man whose disability should be pitied but a man whose capacity for happiness you'd envy. His life has been one of huge resilience in the face of adversity, qualities everywhere apparent on the course last week.

Just 24 hours after Frost made history, Rachael Blackmore emulated her with a victory in the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle. Blackmore's battle with Townend for the Irish title may in the long term be an even more significant milestone for female jockeys and all her expertise was on show as, riding 50/1 shot Minella Indo, she stole a march on the opposition and held off a driving finish by Jack Kennedy on favourite Commander Of Fleet.

This, following Blackmore's victory on A Plus Tard in the Close Brothers Chase and Lizzie Kelly's gutsy front-running win in the Brown Advisory Plate with Siruh Du Lac, made it a record-equalling four Festival wins for female jockeys. A Gold Cup win for Blackmore or Frost may not be far away.

In a normal Festival year the performances of Altior and Tiger Roll might have been the highlights. But while Altior's record-equalling 18 wins out of 18 in the Champion Chase and Tiger Roll's romp to victory in the Cross Country Chase confirmed the very special qualities of both horses, somehow it was the more humanly resonant moments which stick in the mind.

Moments like the one when Jamie Codd, who confirmed his status as prince of the amateur riders with two more Festival victories, paid tribute to his late brother Willie after winning the Champion Bumper. Codd's heartfelt and heartbroken, "God, I wish he was here. I wish he was here," was more eloquent than any elongated testimony could have been.

Then there was Noel Fehily's announcement after winning the Mares Novice Hurdle on 50/1 shot Eglantine Du Seuil that he was going to retire. "It's time to let the young ones get on with it," said the great West Cork jockey who received a guard of honour from his fellow jockeys before he rode his final Cheltenham race in the Albert Bartlett the following day.

It was just one more indelible scene in a week which exploited to the full racing's capacity for the dramatic and its connection with the most profound qualities of the main spirit. When we talk about sporting heroes we're usually talking metaphorically. But how else can you describe jockeys, who spend their working day with an ambulance driving along behind them and know that physical pain is not a danger but an eventual inevitability? Townend, Walsh, Frost, Blackmore, Codd, Fehily and the others are the real kings, and queens, of the Sport of Kings.

Was this the greatest ever Cheltenham?

Yes it was. Cherish the memories.

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