Thursday 22 March 2018

Falls, friendships and fortune in the Festival's glorious mystery

Ian McClean looks back on a week that contained everything that is good about sport and people

Paddy Brennan crosses the line on Imperial Commander
Paddy Brennan crosses the line on Imperial Commander

Ian McClean

If asked to nominate a favourite day of the Festival, I wouldn't hesitate in saying Monday. Because as soon as Tuesday starts, and the Supreme Novices is under way, Cheltenham is whoosh. The blink of an eye, a gasp of breath, and before you know it the Grand Annual runners are unsaddling and crowds are evacuating through the plastic champagne flutes and worn-out newspapers of Gold Cup day.

No more than King Canute, much as you would dearly love to you can't hold it back. But like every year before it, the first Festival Express of the decade at least yielded a few riveting glimpses seen through the carriage windows of horses, people, betting and promotion.

The Horses

If the Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle represent the two highest profile championship races of the week, then the coronation of one champion was every bit as spectacular as the dethronement of another.

In 2009, both Binocular and Kauto Star were perfectly poised to annex their respective prizes. In the event one failed narrowly while the other triumphed imperiously. But 2010 saw Kauto even more cast-iron in his position as Gold Cup favourite while Binocular was a horse which had seemingly lost his mojo.

In all sport at its very apex, whether you are David Gillick, Brian O'Driscoll or Pádraig Harrington, success is measured in millimetres and milliseconds. The 2010 Gold Cup was a brilliant reflection of just that. To outsiders, a horserace is perceived as somehow random with the outcome predicated on multiple factors, many of which relate to luck. Friday's Gold Cup was nothing of the sort.

For the first six fences, Kauto Star was in the zone. Poised on the inside in the perfect position behind the pace-setting duo of Carruthers and Imperial Commander he was jumping with accurate exuberance. Then, out of the blue, lift-off failed at the seventh. Maybe he'd been watching too many reruns of Master Minded at Newbury. But for a reason that will remain a mystery for as long as Devon Loch, Kauto Star tried to gallop through, rather than jump over the seventh. And with that one momentary lapse ended his chance at history. No matter that he sailed over the next as if the mistake had never happened.

As Ruby Walsh described: "I was knocked out of position. I was never on an even keel after and with horses like Cooldine and Imperial Commander taking your position, I could never get back into it." And it was the over-exertion to get back into it that put Kauto, finally, on the floor. By contrast, Paddy Brennan's description of his six-and-change Gold Cup minutes was "a dream all the way".

The same description would hardly have been used by Nicky Henderson to articulate his season with Binocular. Henderson must have felt all season that he'd been landed with a sportscar in a snow-drift. Having used every form of device to shift him, he must have been tempted to get out and push. To such an extent the decision was made not to run in the Champion.

The trainer had ventured that Binocular was a horse "that would win a Champion Hurdle -- I'm just not sure what year!" It was 1,000 on Betfair to be 2010. With the news of his non-participation public, Henderson received a call from Weatherbys asking him to withdraw the horse.

A conversation with JP McManus led to him being left in just to keep options open -- an arrangement described afterwards by Henderson as "quite a good decision."

In the meantime, the elves went to work. Mary Bromiley was treating the back of his neck. John Halley was treating a hind leg. Buffy Shirley-Beaven was treating the sacroiliac. As Ted Walsh described it: "He had experts hanging out of his ears". A 10-day trip to Ireland and a bone-scan was part of the diagnostics package and if Tuesday's explosive transformation is the direct result of that, then Fáilte Ireland should be hastily rewriting their Discover Ireland campaign to include it.

Yet in spite of everything, the SP (9/1) on Tuesday will tell you that no-one knew quite what to expect. The only evidence at home was that he was back to jumping exactly like he used to, yet he put up a career-best performance which saw him beat a high-quality field by three and a half lengths and six.

But despite all the science, and the raft of expertise, those closest still cannot pinpoint the precise problem or the correct solution. "I don't know why he came alive, but he did thankfully," said McCoy, while Nicky Henderson is as perplexed. "With a lot of work from a lot of people it has paid off somehow. It is actually difficult to say what made the difference." I guess it doesn't matter how you're getting winners, so long as you're getting winners.

In the case of both Kauto Star and Binocular last week what affected their performance was both unquantifiable and inexplicable -- one for better, the other for worse.

The People

The ancient notion of the first Greek Olympics was born when two athletes discovered that by running together both their performances could improve. The original spirit of the Olympiad has long since been supplanted by crass commercialism and the pursuit of a drug-assisted, win-at-all-costs ethos by many involved. Not limited to the Olympics it is a feature of many professional sports where stakes and financial rewards are high.

The week at racing's Olympics in the Cotswolds provided a clear litmus test for the type of values that underpin the sport. They were demonstrated clearly and frequently by those most prominent under the enhanced media glare -- in particular the jockeys.

AP McCoy will never receive the Sports Personality of the Year Award -- not because he doesn't deserve it, but simply because racing is not popular enough for its heroes to be recognised that way. It is a simple fact of circumstance, not talent. Part of his talent is that he is a man of granite, both physically and mentally.

On Thursday, he got thrown from Jered in the first. It was a brutal fall and resulted in a thorough hoofing for the jockey and stitches to mend it. Yet he rode in the next. And in the third race he gave Albertas Run a demonic ride to win his second Grade 1 of the week. Although elated, he was visibly crippled with pain as he entered the winner's enclosure. His face contorted, there were no Dettori dismounts going either.

When quizzed about it however he responded: "It's nothing. I've had three or four stitches in my chin and I got kicked in the head and on the back of the neck. I'm sore but I'm not dead." I'm guessing he doesn't do man-flu.

He went on to get a further smashing tumble from Song Of Songs on his last ride of the day, yet there wasn't a bother on him for the following day. When contrasted with some of the histrionics in the Champions League during the week it speaks volumes for just one of the unspoken success criteria for both sporting codes.

Although as viciously competitive as any other sport --just ask Davy Condon who tried nosing up Ruby Walsh's inner during the Ryanair on J'y Vole -- the sense of camaraderie amongst those involved last week has been palpable. The examples are multiple and from all quarters. When Nicky Henderson was interviewed after Soldatino had won the Triumph, his first remark was to say he "felt sorry for the second" (ie Barizan which had led the field clearly all the way only to get nobbled on the run-in).

When Imperial Commander's groom was approached after the Gold Cup, his reaction was led by, "It's a shame Kauto didn't stand up, I hope he's alright." The owners of Kauto Star and Denman were interviewed as a collective just minutes before the start and wished each other the best. And the first thought of many winning connections in the week was to first commiserate with the vanquished.

This almost universally felt duty of sportsmanship so evidently embroidered into the fabric of jump racing by no means translates into many other modern sports including, dare I say, Flat racing.

The greatest illustration of jump racing's character for me last week came from two of its leading characters as McCoy and Walsh emerged from the weigh-room for interview directly after defeat in the Gold Cup. Although obviously deflated in the shadow of the most important six minutes of their calendar, instead of holing themselves away as they might have been inclined, they instead consented to share their feelings in the moment's aftermath. This act speaks of the calibre of not just the men, but the sport itself in the jagged teeth of defeat. They even found room for some mild humour to lighten the mood.

The Damage

If ever there was proof needed that God is a bookie, then last week provided it. I can never remember a worse set of results for punters than those at Cheltenham 2010. "The best Festival we've had in a generation," said David Williams of Ladbrokes. "It was beyond our wildest dreams."

Never has there been more information available to punters. Never has there been the level of concession (free bets, price promises, stake refunds etc) from bookmakers than there is now. Never has there been more choice for punters. Yet still the backers got skinned.

Three outright favourites for the meeting from 24 races tells its own story. Three of the big shorties getting chinned (Master Minded, Kauto Star and Dunguib) tells another. The head-to-head between Denman and Kauto Star being won by an interloper. Binocular returning from the dead. The nightmare is endless.

Even Tom Segal admitted that some of the handicaps were "unsolvable" and led to unfathomable horses often filling all the places at Grand National type prices. It's estimated the bookmaking industry pocketed in the region of £60m for the week.

Paddy Power took an early gamble by offering money back on all losers if Dunguib won the opening Supreme Novices. The business case initially suggested the liability to be around €500,000 but as the take-up and popularity grew it quickly escalated and would have amounted to €4.1m if Dunguib had obliged.

But God the Bookmaker intervened and instead of a payout Paddy Power increased their betting volume on the race by a factor of 16 versus previous years and registered 10,000 new accounts as a result of the promotion.

Needless to say, all bookmaker share prices have risen this week.

Sunday Independent

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