Glorious week reveals genius of jumps giants
It was a thrilling finale. It was a stirring finale. It was the perfect finale. And after the week we'd had it somehow seemed like the inevitable finale as Tony McCoy brought Alderwood home to win the Grand Annual Chase by three-and-a-quarter lengths and bring the curtain down on Cheltenham 2013.
There were more talented horses than Alderwood at Cheltenham. And many bigger races than the Grand Annual. But Alderwood's victory was the one which not only broke the record number of wins for Irish trainers set two years ago at the Festival, it was also the one which meant that for the first time ever they'd scored more Cheltenham winners than their English rivals. It gave us a 14-13 win.
It's a scoreline which deserves to be up there with the great scorelines of Irish sporting history, the 1-0 against England in Stuttgart, the 15-12 victory over Wales which gave us the Grand Slam, the 10-8 points win for Katie Taylor over Sofya Ochigava in the Olympic final. That's how great it was. When they're handing out team of the year awards at the end of 2013 they'll have to show a little bit of imagination and give the trophy to the combined force of Irish trainers who achieved something which 12 months ago, after a mere five-win haul, looked utterly impossible.
Alderwood couldn't have been a more appropriate winner. That's because he was a Mullins horse and the Irish effort was spearheaded by Willie Mullins who continued on from his record-breaking season on home soil to earn five victories which saw him finish as leading trainer at the Festival. And also because the Mullins behind Alderwood was not Willie but his brother Tom and it was the strength in depth of the Irish challenge which made this such a memorable week.
There's no denying that on an individual basis it was Willie Mullins' Festival. He set the ball rolling with Champagne Fever in the first race and followed up with the Champion Hurdle victory which confirmed Hurricane Fly, only the second horse in history to regain this title, as a hurdler for the ages. But when Mullins had four winners under his belt and no other Irish trainer had followed suit it looked as though the Kilkenny man was fighting a lone battle. And then in the third race on Wednesday, Jim Culloty, who'd enjoyed so much glory as a jockey at Cheltenham, saddled Lord Windermere to win the RSA Chase and give him his first Festival victory as a trainer. The floodgates opened. Gordon Elliott got in on the act with 25/1 shot Flaxen Flare, Charles Byrnes sent Solwhit roaring out of Limerick to win the World Hurdle, Peter Maher did the trick with Big Shu.
Then there was Tony Martin's extraordinary double with Benefficient and Ted Veale and the continuation of the Sweeney family saga at Cheltenham. Salsify looked out of it in the Foxhunters' Chase but rallied to give the team of Rodger, trainer and father, Joan, owner and mother, and Colman, jockey and son, their second successive win in the race.
Yet while there was plenty to celebrate, the jubilation will be tempered by a note of sadness. As I write, JT McNamara remains in a coma after his fall in the Kim Muir Challenge Cup on Thursday. The thoughts of the Irish sporting public are with him and his family after this latest stark reminder that, almost uniquely among sportsmen, jockeys potentially take their lives in their hands every time they go to work. It's just three years since Colman Sweeney was left unconscious in Tipperary after being kicked in the head by a horse, an injury which almost ended his career. Many jockeys have similar stories.
Perhaps that's why of all sportsmen they tend to be the most immune to hype, the most self-effacing and matter of fact. They don't trade in rhetoric about life-and-death struggles or sacrifice because in their game these things are real and not metaphorical. Vainglory, boasting and bullishness aren't part of their armoury.
And the result is that they hold a special place in the affections of their public. No sportsman could be more reluctant to claim hero status for himself than Ruby Walsh but he has attained it all the same. The four victories which propelled him back to the top of the Cheltenham jockeys' pile were achieved with his customary trademark combination of flair and insouciance. Who's ever heard anyone say a bad word about the guy? Or any of our Cheltenham heroes for that matter.
It would be unforgivably parochial not to mention two of the big highlights of the Festival, Sprinter Sacre's 19-length victory in the Champion Chase and the most thrill-
ing Gold Cup finish in years as Barry Geraghty showed sang-froid and perfect judgement to bring Bobs Worth home and deny Willie Mullins the victory which would have been the icing on the cake.
But it will be the Irish memories which linger longest. Our Conor's win for Dessie Hughes in the Triumph Hurdle, defying that race's reputation as a graveyard for fancies and whetting the appetite for a big showdown between himself and Hurricane Fly in next year's Champion Hurdle, the three wins which marked 20-year-old Bryan Cooper as an heir to Walsh and Geraghty, the rally on the run-in which landed Quevega her record-equalling fifth Mares Hurdle in a row.
And above all the fact that there were nine different successful Irish trainers who came from Carlow, Kilkenny, Kildare, from Cork, from Meath and Dublin and Limerick to score a sweet, sweet victory over the old enemy. 14-13. Chalk it down.
Best Cheltenham Ever.