Monday 19 February 2018

James Lawton: Gold-Don moment

Cooper makes right choice to claim jump-racing's ultimate prize for Elliott and O'Leary as Mullins team are left with regrets after coming up agonisingly short in a clean sweep for Irish raiders

Bryan Cooper on Don Cossack celebrates Gold Cup at Cheltenham yesterday Photo: Getty
Bryan Cooper on Don Cossack celebrates Gold Cup at Cheltenham yesterday Photo: Getty
James Lawton

James Lawton

It was courteous, even compassionate of Irish racing to leave the skyscraper grandstand still attached to its foundations and the old genteel township relatively untouched by the scorched earth policy of Mullins and Walsh - one that in the end was challenged successfully not by the likes of English titans Henderson and Nicholls, who didn't have a runner, but the extremely ambitious Meath-Kerry combination of Elliott and Cooper.

But then if Ireland's claiming of the first four Gold Cup places - trainer Gordon and jockey Bryan delivering a crushing victory by the relentless favourite Don Cossack - was another overwhelming example of the power and the depth of the invasion, there was still one huge and haunting question in its wake.

It was one that the great Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh, and their owner boss Rich Ricci were bound to address, if only to themselves.

It asked quite unavoidably: Vautour or Djakadam? Or, put another way, heaven or hell, joy or dereliction? If Mullins never wins the most important prize in jump racing, he may spend the rest of his lifetime running such questions through his mind.

After the threatening Cue Card fell three fences away from landing a million-pound reward that would have been the reward for a three-race sweep through Haydock Park and Kempton and here where the final judgement is made on the greatness - or not - of the champions, the issue could not have been more easily framed.


It was between Don Cossack, pounding up the hill and Djakadam, which was chosen by the Mullins camp so controversially despite the claims of his stablemate which on Thursday produced the most dazzling performance of a superb Festival.

Vautour filled this valley with acclamation when he carried off the Ryanair Chase with one of the most compelling performances of the racing age. Yesterday all Djakadam could provide was not equal to such a task. What he had was much gallant spirit, which the maestro Walsh nourished with all due diligence. But long before the finish line the verdict was in. He couldn't do it, Don Cossack was too strong up the hill.

Would Vautour have done better? We will never know, at least not for sure, but certainly are we entitled to our suspicions. This much, even the man ultimately responsible for the decision, Ricci, conceded, are we allowed. He could scarcely keep the anguish from his face when he said: "Yes, I suppose there will always have to be a twinge of what-might-have-been."

Last night some were at pains to point out that Vautour would have needed to find another five furlongs to reproduce his Ryanair triumph in the Gold Cup.

Yet at the same time other racing men were at least whispering their conviction that five furlongs might just have been like small change jingling in the pocket of a billionaire. Indeed, that Vautour is indeed arguably the best National Hunt horse currently in training.

There was one certainty in all this soul-searching. It was that none of it touched either winning trainer Elliott, who of course won the Grand National when he was 29 and jockey Cooper, who at 23 is a veteran of Cheltenham triumphs.

They have achieved their own values, and their own nerve, in most precocious fashion and last night they could milk their triumph however they chose.

It fact they did it with a degree of restraint you might have expected from men who had proved so conspicuously that they were at home on this most challenging terrain of their demanding business.

Cooper did permit himself a flash of self-vindication when he responded to suggestions that he had an uneasy relationship with the new champion, saying, "There was quite a lot of press comment along the lines that I couldn't get on with the horse so I think I have proved you wrong and for this I'm delighted."

It was a fairly mild cry of 'touché' and it was only an especially precious critic who could have taken exception.

He also said: "It wasn't an easy decision to make between the horses after Don Poli won the RSA although it was hard to know how much he had left when he did that. Going into today's race I knew I would be on the best horse in the race. Gordon (Elliott) and everyone had him in top shape.

"I had plenty of horse under me and came close to the fourth and still landed running away and I knew I had Ruby (on Djakadam) and Cue Card in trouble and it was a case of him being quick enough. From the last he had his ears pricked and he wasn't doing a stroke.

"I wasn't under any pressure from the trainer or the owner. They knew the runners were finishing as good as they could, there was no hard luck stories, except something more than that in so unfortunately losing No More Heroes - so, sadly, he was the one that got away."

Ruby Walsh, who came to the race on seven wins this week and the promise of a final show of crushing authority, was in no mood to reflect, at least publicly, on the decision that may have shaped both the day and a significant piece of racing history.

He had praise for Djakadam - and no hint that he too might have been consumed with regret that he had rode the wrong horse down to the start.

Said Walsh: "He ran a blinder after travelling really well. Smad Place was jumping right in front of him and gave us a great bit of light all the way. I jumped through on his inner somewhere down the back. It was, I suppose, just the drying ground that really helped Don Cossack and looked as if it was really going to help Cue Card as well, when he fell.

"But I didn't have the speed - if it had been softer, more testing for stamina, it might have been different but then it was what it was on the day and Don Cossack was a very good winner. Jumping didn't concern me and I got a very good run round in a great position. And fair play to Bryan Cooper, he picked the right one. He was entitled to celebrate."

Of course it was the begging of a question. If Cooper had been right, how wrong was the Mullins camp?

It is the most fascinating, and potentially heart-breaking, question bequeathed by four days of superb racing, and no doubt it will linger as some poignant shadow accompanying the memory of brilliant, and moving, performance.

Along the peaks of it we saw the crowning of Annie Power as a Champion Hurdle-winning mare brilliant enough to spark in Mullins the dream of delivering his own version of Dawn Run's progression to triumph in the Gold Cup.

There was the resurrection of the wonder horse Sprinter Sacre - and the consistently sublime riding of the record-breaking Walsh.

Yet, it still has to the said, the highest point was touched by the horse which was missing yesterday.

Twenty-four hours earlier, Vautour had won a race - and launched a thousand regrets.

Last night you couldn't shake that sadness for all the weight of the wonders we had seen.

Irish Independent

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