Tuesday 21 November 2017

Four Cheltenham Festivals to remember

Last year’s Gold Cup winner, Coneygree
Last year’s Gold Cup winner, Coneygree
Victory for War Of Attrition sparked wild celebrations by Irish punters
Urubande gives Aidan O’Brien a first win in Britain in the 1996 Sun Alliance Hurdle
Euphoria greets Dawn Run and Jonjo O’Neill

Nicholas Godfrey turns back the clock to four vintage gatherings in the Cotswolds, starting with arguably the most dramatic Gold Cup of all-time

1986:  ‘ALL of Ireland knew Dawn Run would win’

‘AND the mare is beginning to get up . . .’ Who could forget Peter O’Sullevan’s immortal words, uttered in the dying strides of arguably the most dramatic Cheltenham Gold Cup of all time? So vivid is the memory that it seems scarcely credible it all happened fully 30 years ago: Dawn Run, the pride of Ireland, somehow grasped victory from the very jaws of defeat in a race for the ages.

Euphoria ensued in the aftermath of a never-to-be-forgotten contest as Dawn Run and Jonjo O’Neill were totally swamped in the winner’s enclosure. “That was a day in a lifetime – the best moment I’ve had in my racing life,” said O’Neill, speaking a couple of decades after the event. “I suppose it wasn’t just that she did it – it was the way she did it.

“Then it all started; it was unbelievable. All those years I had been riding, this was the first time I could actually feel the weight of the crowd. I remember thinking if that lot mobbed me, I was gone – and they almost did!”

Dawn Run’s Gold Cup triumph must surely feature among the most thrillingly emotional in the history of The Festival as the tenacious little mare, famed for her never-say-die determination, etched her name in the annals as the only horse ever to win both the Champion Hurdle and Cheltenham Gold Cup.

As good as she was, Dawn Run had to battle every inch for both her championships. In 1984 she held Cima by just three-quarters of a length in receipt of 5lb; two years later, after a stop-start chasing career in which she had shown herself anything but a natural over fences, she was made Gold Cup favourite (albeit largely because Burrough Hill Lad was missing through a leg injury).

There were stamina doubts over a trip longer than she had encountered before on this, only her fifth start over fences. Her novice campaign had been curtailed through injury after just one victory, then she had unseated regular rider Tony Mullins, son of trainer Paddy, at Cheltenham in January. That incident cost Mullins the ride as Dawn Run’s feisty owner Charmian Hill insisted on a return to Champion Hurdle partner O’Neill.

In the event, Dawn Run was to require every ounce of O’Neill’s strength. While she was harried for the lead by the free-rolling Run And Skip, the mare’s suspect jumping did not help: she missed out the water jump and made a howler of the last ditch five out before coming under pressure. With the powerful O’Neill driving her along, she still led into the straight – cue a huge cheer from the stands – and, despite being headed, fought back for a narrow advantage at the second-last.

Yet the cause looked hopeless as Wayward Lad and defending champion Forgive ‘n Forget swept past on the approach to the last.Hugely popular veteran Wayward Lad forged two lengths clear under Graham Bradley but hit a wall 100 yards out and O’Neill switched Dawn Run to the outside. Calling upon her immense reserves, the mare gutsily clawed her way past Forgive ‘n Forget and, finally, Wayward Lad to regain the advantage in a pulsating climax.

Three times she had looked beaten but Dawn Run had won in record time – and her supporters duly invaded the winner’s enclosure where, almost drowning in an outpouring of Irish passion, both owner and rider were carried aloft. Ever the sportsman, O’Neill demonstrated his own sense of gratitude in hoisting the deposed Tony Mullins on his shoulders.

“The whole of Ireland knew Dawn Run would win and the way it happened made it more exciting than ever,” said O’Neill, who retired soon after to start a training career. “I can still hear the roars and shouts and see the hats flying. It’s so easy to remember days like that.”

There was a tragic aftermath to the Dawn Run story, however: less than three months after her Gold Cup triumph she suffered a fatal injury as she attempted to win a second French Champion Hurdle. Gone, then, but never forgotten.

Back in those days there were only three six-race cards but there was no shortage of stories, not least as David Nicholson finally broke his Festival training maiden with a double on the final day courtesy of 40-1 longshot Solar Cloud in the Triumph Hurdle and future Gold Cup winner Charter Party in the Ritz Club Chase. Eight-time champion Peter Scudamore rode both horses.

Nicky Henderson, the leading trainer in Festival history with 53 winners, was on the way to his first championship; three victories at the meeting helped on that score, notably the middle leg of See You Then’s Champion Hurdle hat-trick.

1996: Kibreet success leaves McCoy floating on air

COMPETITIVE helter-skelter thrill ride though it invariably is, the Grand Annual rarely steals the headlines. It didn’t really make much of a splash in news terms in 1996 either, as the Philip Hobbs-trained Kibreet went clear two out before keeping on gamely to hold Easthorpe by four lengths.

But perhaps we should have paid more attention to the two-mile handicap: if the identity of the winner was not especially worthy of note, the identity of the jockey certainly was. His name was AP McCoy, riding the first Festival winner of a career destined to rewrite the record books and redefine the limits of what seemed possible for one of his chosen profession. Only 21 at the time, McCoy had drawn a blank until Kibreet answered his every call to claim the Grand Annual and leave his jockey “floating on air”, as he explained in his autobiography.

“It’s like anything: success breeds success,” he went on. “It’s fantastic to ride a winner at Cheltenham like I’m sure it’s fantastic to score a goal in the Premiership, but the longer you go without riding a winner there, the longer you go without scoring a goal for your new club, the more the pressure mounts and the more difficult it seems to get. Then you ride one, then you score one, then you relax and the winners or goals flow.”

He wasn’t wrong: McCoy was top jockey in 1997 with three winners including both the Champion Hurdle and Cheltenham Gold Cup, with Make A Stand and Mr Mulligan respectively. He was to ride 31 Festival winners altogether.

The soon-to-be-legendary jockey was not the only one to claim a breakthrough success at the 1996 Festival, where a young Irish trainer also destined for high estate scored for the first time. Does the name Aidan O’Brien ring any bells?

O’Brien had taken out a training licence in 1993 and, before casting all before him on the Flat, Aidan enjoyed dazzling success over Jumps in Ireland. Urubande’s all-the-way success in the Sun Alliance Hurdle under Charlie Swan was not only the first of O’Brien’s five Cheltenham victories – Istabraq provided the other four – it was his first success of any kind in Britain.

The big guns were silenced in both showpiece contests. Wiltshire-based Jumps stalwart Jim Old took the Champion Hurdle with Collier Hill, whose jockey Graham Bradley got the ride only after being sacked from defending champion Alderbrook when he woke up too late to partner the horse in a gallop.

Two days later the Fergie Sutherland-trained Imperial Call powered up the hill for a four-length triumph over subsequent Grand National winner Rough Quest in the Gold Cup, ending an amazing drought which had seen no Irish-trained horse make the first three since Dawn Run.

There was more Irish success in the Champion Chase, which offered Arthur Moore the chance to indulge in his favoured camera-pleasing tactic of placing his hat between the ears of the winning horse after Klairon Davis claimed a titanic contest. Three horses were in the air together at the last before the winner sprinted clear of Viking Flagship and Sound Man to score by five lengths.

The bookies also had reason to remember Wednesday’s card as Trainglot landed an almighty gamble in the Coral Cup for trainer Jimmy FitzGerald.

Willie Mullins was also on the scoresheet – as both trainer and jockey. Having saddled his first Festival winner 12 months previously with Tourist Attraction in the Supreme Novices’, he repeated the dose via Wither Or Which in the Champion Bumper. The six-time Irish champion amateur also rode the horse.

2006: Easy as 1-2-3 as Irish hit new heights

NOT that the annual influx of Irish visitors have ever needed much encouragement when it comes to ‘having it large’ at Cheltenham, but The Festival often coincides with the official date of St Patrick’s Day.

Ten years ago, March 17 fell on the Friday at what was only the second four-day festival. And guess what? Three days after Brave Inca had led home an Irish 1-2-3 in the Champion Hurdle, War Of Attrition repeated the dose in the Gold Cup. There must have been some seriously sore heads on the Saturday morning ferry back to Dun Laoghaire.

Ridden prominently on his first attempt at beyond three miles by veteran jockey Conor O’Dwyer, three weeks short of his 40th birthday, War Of Attrition jumped like a stag throughout. Sent to the front three out, Mouse Morris’s stable star kept on strongly up the hill to beat Grand Na­tional winner Hedgehunter by two and a half lengths, with Forget The Past third.

War Of Attrition’s victory in the Giggin­stown House Stud colours cemented Rya­nair boss Michael O’Leary’s love affair with Jump racing. Although there had been talk of the gelding running instead in the race sponsored by his owner, O’Leary left the final decision to his trainer. “And I was always going to go for gold,” said Morris.

War Of Attrition’s success was the ninth at the meeting for an Irish-trained horse, equalling the record set in 1958 and 2005. We didn’t have to wait long for the Irish record to be broken as Whyso Mayo took their domination to unprecedented heights with a tenth success in the very next race, the Foxhunter.

Brave Inca, who had beaten War Of Attrition a neck in the Supreme Novices’ a couple of years earlier, scored a coura­geous victory by a length from Macs Joy, with dual champion Hardy Eustace three lengths away in third. Tony McCoy rode the winner, who was 7-4 favourite. “The horse would have to be dead two days to stop battling and McCoy would carry on riding if he had no arms and no legs,” suggested broadcaster Ted Walsh.

Newmill had spent much of the sea­son chasing home Brave Inca in hurdles before his surprise 16-1 victory (for Ireland, naturally) in the Queen Mother Champion Chase on Wednesday for trainer John Joseph Murphy and jockey Andrew Mc­Namara. It was an incident-packed edition of the two-mile championship: among the fallers was Kauto Star, having only his fifth run since joining Paul Nicholls from France.

Also involved was defending champ Moscow Flyer, who plugged on to finish fifth after being hampered as Kauto Star departed the scene and was retired. One of the more colourful contenders in a double-figure field was Kario De Sor­main, whose trainer Jean-Paul Gallorini made light of pre-race concerns that the French mare might not appreciate British-style fences. “She will take to the fences like a young girl discovering love,” he suggested. She unseated at the first.

An Irish clean sweep of the week’s ma­jor prizes was averted on Thursday when the Alan King-trained My Way De Solzen just held Golden Cross by a head under Robert Thornton. Staying star Baracouda bowed out with a brave effort in fifth as younger legs prevailed.

King and Thornton had also struck in Grade 1 company on Tuesday when Voy Por Ustedes took the Arkle from Monet’s Garden, while Paul Nicholls claimed the top trainer title for the third time with three winners: Noland (Supreme Novic­es’), Star De Mohaison (RSA Chase) and Desert Quest (County Hurdle).

2015: Mullins juggernaut rolls on with record eight-race haul

SUCH was the extent of Willie Mullins’s domination at The Festival last year you would be tempted to call it ruthless, were it not for the fact that the Irish champion’s rampant professionalism is always accompanied by a charming smile.

Winning 30 per cent of the available races may have been astonishing in itself but somehow it felt like even more after Mullins – usually, but not always, in partnership with Ruby Walsh; often, but not always, via horses owned by Rich Ricci – farmed the Grade 1s on the opening day to stamp his name through the 2015 Festival like letters on a stick of rock.

Leading Festival trainer in four of the previous five years, Mullins began imperiously. No single Irish day-one banker this time; here, seemingly, there were four, all from the same stable. Douvan, Un De Sceaux and Faugheen were all backed as if defeat was out of the question, and so it proved in a string of impressive victories.

Still, even the best can come unstuck: a notorious episode involved the one that got away. Sent off at 1-2, the shortest-priced of any Mullins representative, Annie Power looked formidable indeed in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle, a race her trainer had won for the previous six years with Quevega. Having been beaten only once in her life when runner-up in the 2014 World Hurdle, she looked a certainty on the book.

She ran like one as well, cruising around the inner before going on two out with the race in safekeeping – only to dive at the last and hit the turf with a thud that produced an audible gasp from the stands.

Bookmakers often seem to pluck figures out of thin air but, given the potential winnings running on from the other Mullins hotpots, claims they had avoided an £80 million payout did not look entirely farfetched.

Even this reverse, however, could not stop Mullins: picking up the pieces was Annie Power’s stablemate Glens Melody, who duly completed a magnificent four-timer for the trainer in the capable hands of Paul Townend. Mullins was by no means done, either, as he added four more winners later in the week to establish a new record, among them a dour staying performance from Don Poli in the RSA Chase and a more dynamic display from Vautour in the JLT Novices’ Chase.

There were also notable performances elsewhere, not least from Paul Nicholls. So dominant himself in the days of Kauto Star and Denman, Nicholls enjoyed a treble on Wednesday’s card highlighted by Dodging Bullets in the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase.

Among those to open their Festival accounts in 2015 were the trainer-jockey partnership of Warren Greatrex and Gavin Sheehan, who teamed up to win the Ladbrokes World Hurdle with Cole Harden.

Thursday’s card was more significant for another reason: the final Festival winner of AP McCoy, who partnered the bold-jumping Uxizandre to a flying success in the JP McManus silks in the Ryanair Chase.

Cheltenham winners can come in all shapes and sizes, and seldom can that maxim have been better illustrated than in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Fulfilling jockey Nico de Boinville’s assertion that his chasing technique was “bombproof”, Coneygree jumped his rivals into submission to become the first novice to triumph since Captain Christy in 1974.

It was a victory for the corinthian tendency: the giant gelding was bred by the late, great John Oaksey, and was one of the small string trained by the noble lord’s son-in-law Mark Bradstock.

The runner-up? Djakadam, trained by a certain WP Mullins, for whom Wicklow Brave (County Hurdle) and Killultagh Vic (Martin Pipe) on the Friday brought up the record eight. How many will Mullins need this year before the Monopolies and Mergers Commission is called in?

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