Friday 15 December 2017

Geraghty launches a new superstar

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

If the old game needs great horses more than great races, the sight of Barry Geraghty coming up Cheltenham hill on a sun-lounger answered all the conventional prayers.

But it felt a sterile process, watching Sprinter Sacre take the Queen Mother Champion Chase with such insouciant ease that Geraghty could steal a backward glance to check on any bleached bones masquerading as the rest of the field.

It brought to mind Con Houlihan's wonderful description of Walter Swinburn doing something similar on board Shergar in the Epsom Derby.

It was, wrote Con, "almost as if a man fleeing from a bull had stopped to pick up a flower."

Geraghty's mount could have won pulling a buggy here, winning by 19 lengths from the venerable Sizing Europe, who'd been depicted as some kind of prehistoric curiosity just for having the effrontery to race.

Thank heavens he did, though, because they had to all but send out search dogs to check if the others had taken a wrong turn.

Henry de Bromhead apart, the steeplechase world ran scared of Sprinter Sacre, concluding that to race against Nicky Henderson's unbeaten seven-year-old was tantamount to running over a cliff.

It made for one of the smallest entries since Arkle was a boy and only Sizing Europe, "now an old man" as Ted Walsh described him on TV yesterday morning, looked qualified for the challenge.

Presumably he was back in slippers last night, De Bromhead running him a nice bath after the trauma of following Henderson's "aeroplane" down a Gloucestershire runway.

For Geraghty, inevitable questions followed about comparisons with Moscow Flyer with whom he took this crown in '03 and '05.

After all, he once said he "would not argue" with those claiming Jessica Harrington's old champion to be the best chaser since Arkle. Now?

"It's hard to compare like with like," said Geraghty. "Moscow was a super horse, but this lad is unbelievable. It's the way he does it, he just struts it. He's hard to take in, he's just all engine, he oozes class.

"Four out, I gave him a squeeze and the ground was a bit dead and he put down. He's never put down before. But he's like driving a Ferrari with 15 gears.

"When he got the better ground rolling down the hill to the third last, he just carted with me then.

"He's something special, an unbelievable horse. Nico de Boinville (Sprinter Sacre's work rider) said it on the 'Morning Line' that we're running out of superlatives and we are. So...we'll have to get another dictionary!"

The betting throngs covet great champions because they become cash machines and, in Sprinter Sacre, National Hunt now has a verifiable superstar through which Henderson hopes, as he put it, to have "a lot of years and a lot of fun."

But his authority was so conclusive, so utterly profound, that the more evocative stories of the day tended to reside downstream, in the smiles of less familiar faces.

Not long after he retired as a jockey, I interviewed Jim Culloty about the challenge of building a new life, far removed from the adrenalin overload of riding the likes of three-time Gold Cup winner, Best Mate.

Culloty had a tinge of sadness in his voice as he said that the decision had been franked, essentially, by a realisation that he'd lost his nerve.

And, when a jockey becomes preoccupied with falling, his only option is the door.

So, he became a trainer in 2006 and there must have been days since when his new life in Churchtown felt like some kind of cruel tariff to be paid for all those glory days aboard Henrietta Knight's star. But a good horse can change the personality of a whole stable and, when Ronan Lambe deposited Lord Windermere into Culloty's care, the Kerryman sensed instantly that he had something.

Culloty admits he would begin his 6.0 morning feeds, mildly preoccupied with the occupant of box 11.

"If I didn't have Dr Lambe I would be a struggling trainer," he reflected on an owner of roughly half the horses in his care. "I suppose I am still a struggling trainer, but his loyalty and support is incredible."

Lord Windermere became their lottery ticket yesterday, surging up the hill as if suspended on wires to win an RSA Chase that presented Lambe with his first Festival winner.

And, for Culloty, it wasn't hard to believe that the experience might have vaulted high over even his fairytale with Best Mate.

"I mean I was very very lucky to ride a horse like him" he told us.

"I rode another couple of winners round here as well, Lord Noelie in The Bumper and Total Enjoyment for Tom Cooper.

"They're unbelievable days, but I mean from last July – when I got this fella in out of the field – he was being geared towards the RSA Chase. So to say it's kind of rewarding is an understatement.

"It's incredible. I'm just absolutely delighted, relieved, think of all the words you want. Training racehorses is a form of farming, where you've livestock and you've dead-stock.

"It's important to keep the livestock alive, keep them in once piece and stop them hurting themselves. They're thoroughbreds, bred for generations to be racehorses.

"When they're not racing, they're not always the most clever and they can get themselves into a bit of bother. So you mind them."

business

Culloty could soon have a work-book thicker than Tolstoy could write and there'll be more business coming the way too of Gordon Elliott whose 25/1 shot, Flaxen Flare, came home first in the Fred Winter.

"If he never wins again, it doesn't matter," beamed Elliott. "His job is done now."

There was a telltale catch in the voice of Patrick Mullins too as he came to the enclosure after Back in Focus' win in the opener, a race twice won by his now slightly tearful father, Willie.

Patrick is so tall that, when he sits upright on a horse, he has the silhouette of a candle on a cake. But he rides with the touch of a concert pianist and the provenance of that gift isn't difficult to trace.

Patrick explained: "Since I've been very young, there's two pictures on the wall at home with dad winning the four mile on Hazy Dawn and Max Friendly.

"To be up there, beside him now, means a lot. It is a fantastic feeling, hard to describe.

"Like you're trying to describe the colour red to a blind person. Or imagine when you're very young and you ask something from Santa, you don't really expect to get it.

"So, it's a bit of disbelief more than anything."

Three beautiful stories then residing in the shadow of Sprinter Sacre's wondershow. And one telltale moment. When Geraghty's mount briefly took that stumble four from home, the gasps were less of worry than of disbelief. It was like seeing James Bond look clumsy.

"The first mistake he's ever made" said Geraghty afterwards.

It was difficult to know whether it was more appropriate to cheer or tremble.

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