Sunday 21 July 2019

Roy Curtis: A Champion Hurdle for the ages, rivalries and bringing the gift of light to one man's darkness

The winners' enclosure and (inset) Andrew Gemmell
The winners' enclosure and (inset) Andrew Gemmell

Roy Curtis

1. A Champion Hurdle for the ages.

Here, in the fantasy field that is both at the edge of this old, well-bred Cotswold township and, at the epicentre of the sporting universe, looms an eternal contest.  One with the potential to live beyond the days of the multitude gathered to bear witness.

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Buveur D'Air v Apple's Jade v Laurina.

A Rumble in the Jungle piled atop a Thriller in Manila; Ali, Frazier and Foreman in one ring, punching against the crushing weight of history, until only one remains upright.

Buveur D'Air, the defending champion, seeking to complete a three race sweep and become only the sixth ever equine prize-fighter - and the first since the immortal Istabraq - to claim this heavyweight belt for a third time.

And, pitted against the illustrious Saxon – all be it one that runs, like Istabraq, in the green and gold hoops of Limerick's JP McManus – a pair of brilliant, jet-heeled Celtic ladies.

How the foundations of Prestbury Park's skyscraper grandstands will shake if Apple's Jade, a ten-time Grade One winner, the last three by a combined 73 lengths, and perhaps Ireland's most beloved racehorse, can become just the second winning mare in 25 years.

But could it be that Laurina, the up and coming star, unbeaten over obstacles and nourished by the maestro Walsh, might be too strong up the hill?

The flag will rise at 3.30 this afternoon and, for four minutes, glorious thunder will rent the Gloucestershire air.

Do whatever is required to secure a ringside seat.

2.  Ruby, and the irreplaceable, hazardous narcotic of race riding.

Ruby Walsh has journeyed through his brilliant life as a kind of hostage, a bondservant to the opiate of man atop beast.

As addictive as heroin, his bloodstream craves, every waking hour, the narcotic of the weigh-room.

Neither tragedy nor pain – Ruby has lost friends to death and paralysis, forfeited his own spleen, broken bones as if they were matchwood – can medicate against the hankering.

To ride, to race, to add to his record-shattering 58 Festival wins, to feel alive.

That inability to contemplate life without its essential meaning explains the haunting power of a strangely beautiful picture from last year's Cheltenham newsprints.

Ruby, head bowed, his right leg, having crumpled under half-a-tonne of horseflesh, again a useless thing, is a broken soldier being linked from the battlefield by two older, grim-faced men.

A portrait of helpless devastation.

What elevates the picture is that the desolate figure supporting Walsh's left side, a hopeless expression visible beneath a flat-capped head, is his own father, Ted.

He looks in even more pain than his stricken son.

The knowledge that the ultimate week of a jockey's life has been cruelly thieved away informs Walsh senior's devastation.

After a difficult 110-day convalescence from a fall the previous November, the sacrifice and agonies and mood swings of recuperation, they are back at ground zero.

Traces of concern are carved, as if by tattoo-needle, deep into the crevices of Ted's face.

It is the most evocative snapshot. A study in paternal affection and anxiety.

And a reminder that Walsh belongs to a fraternity of unfathomably courageous, slightly unhinged, forever living on the edge, utterly enslaved gladiators:  Sporting fire-eaters.

3.  A Gold Cup miracle conceived in a field in Athenry.

The story of Presenting Percy and his eccentric, shaman, genius-trainer Peter Kelly long ago loosened the reins of credulity.

Kelly is the unknowable, horse-whisperer – he declines all interview requests, is as unreachable as Howard Hughes in his reclusive pomp, employs a singular approach to preparing his hoofed Ferrari - steering a once in a lifetime beast toward his chosen sport's most coveted prize.

He is the quiet man.  A small, rural, unorthodox, out-resourced Galwayman taking on National Hunt's behemoths.

‘Percy's story is as remarkable as his preparations are unusual.  He has not run over fences since winning the RSA 12 months ago, his second straight Festival win.

Kelly does not own any gallops.  Instead, his superstar is honed to fitness in a borrowed field in Athenry.

It is not to patronise an epic achievement to say his story feels as outrageous and inspiring as a tiny provincial football club without a training ground, whose star player has not kicked a ball in a year, facing Lionel Messi and Barcelona in a Champions League final.

Yet, on many of the oddsmakers' lists, Presenting Percy is favourite for the greatest race at the greatest show on earth.

Kelly will seek to land an almighty blow for the little man.  Should he win, he will be the custodian of a legitimate claim, perhaps even an unanswerable one, to Sports Manager of the Year honours.

On Friday, with bated breath, the nation will stand behind him.

4.  Bringing the gift of light to one man's darkness

Andrew Gemmell has been sightless since his birth, 66 years ago.

He was seduced by horse-racing as a boy, listening to radio commentaries of Arkle's Cheltenham heroics.

Gemmell travels to race meetings – as far away from the Melbourne Cup – and if his eyes are closed doors, he takes in the roar of the crowd and the thump of hooves. In those moments he lives as surely as if he had 20-20 vision, the sensory jolt of epic sport.

Racing his shaped his world.  It has helped him escape his blindness.

"I study the form as much as I can. I've got friends who read stuff to me. I watch a lot on the television and take in as much as I can. I try my best to keep up to speed with everything. I've got one friend who rings me on Saturday with all the Racing Post news."

He will be the racing bible's front page story on Thursday.  Paisley Park, a horse he bought for £60,000 in 2015, is the favourite for the big race of the third day, the Stayers Hurdle.

Gemmell was denied the gift of sight, but, this week, at least, he is dreaming in technicolour.

5.  Faugheen, the old master, goes back to the well one last time.

If the pitiless revolution of the clocks is an enemy of all athletes, the greats can sometimes stop time in its tracks.

Jack Nicklaus froze the years at Augusta in 1986, his 18th major arriving less than four years before his 50th birthday.  Apparently immune to the passing seasons, Roger Federer won his 100th professional tennis event just a fortnight ago.

Might a majestic, once untouchable beast, now in his equine twilight, the one Walsh dubbed “Faugheen the Machine” all those springs ago, turn back the years and hear again the roar of acclamation detonate across the valley?

The possible resurrection of a wonder-horse is the most seductive imagining.

Four years on from his Champion Hurdle imperium, 70 days after a sickening, crowd-silencing tumble at Leopardstown, one that felt for all the world like a fatal slip, could Willie Mullins's venerated 11-year-old possibly land another major?

Should it happen, should the old mustang somehow stop all the clocks, the entire population of the Cotswold valley will, for an enchanted moment, feel just a little younger. 

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