Saturday 24 March 2018

Thrills and spills on emotional rollercoaster

Cheltenham yet again lived up to its billing as racing's greatest show, writes Ian McClean

Bryan Cooper
Bryan Cooper

It is perhaps true of all sport at its apex, but it is more acutely characteristic that the Cheltenham Festival acts as the animated playhouse for the full gamut of the very thing that defines the human condition – our emotions. Last week was no different.

When asked to describe it, the closest our anaemic language can get is the word "atmosphere" – simply the net outcome, surely, of the convergence of hope, despair, joy, disappointment, frustration, pride, regret and a myriad other feelings compacted into one naturally hollowed enclave in the Cotswolds, spitting and simmering by turn, for four intense days.

Like fish in water, racing folk are typically immune to its existence, much less its effects, and it often takes the pithy impression of an outside voice (in one instance Channel 4 "Chatty Man" Alan Carr) to remind us of the unique ingredients that make the Festival so special. Carr, making his first visit to the track, was overwhelmed by the experience, summarising his lengthy, honeyed outburst of appreciation with "I've never known anything like it".

Unconfined to those on the outside, racing's insiders too were similarly touched.

The Jockey

Before this week it was: Bryan Cooper, son of Kerry trainer and dentist Tom Cooper. Today it is: Bryan Cooper, rising weigh-room star and heir apparent to Walsh, Geraghty and Carberry.

Kevin Prendergast was the first to recognise his talent soon after the cherubic teenager first arrived at his yard at 15. Dessie Hughes went on to acclaim it. Fathers aren't licensed to celebrate their own in quite the same way, but now Tom Cooper doesn't have to because it seems the rest of the world has joined the chorus of praise.

Before last week Cooper junior had yet to ride a Festival winner. By Friday tea-time, he was second in the overall Festival jockeys' table with three wins, two seconds and a third – dividing Ruby Walsh from Barry Geraghty and AP McCoy in the final standings. What is more remarkable perhaps is that the three finest horsemen of the modern era had 20, 21 and 18 rides respectively this week. Cooper manufactured his final total from just nine rides.

Bryan Cooper's first visit to the Festival came half a lifetime ago for him, aged just 10. Back then he was fortunate enough to lead his dad's Festival Bumper mare Total Enjoyment up the chute into the winners' enclosure. The impression left then – "a bit different going out to the parade ring there than going out to the parade ring at Thurles on a Thursday" – proved as indelible as it was unforgettable. "To ride a winner at the Festival was all I ever dreamed about after that."

The back of the couch from then on became his imaginary Cheltenham conveyance, the sitting-room his run-in. The events of this week turned dreams to reality, the couch into horseflesh and his career into orbit. Yesterday as he prepared to go to Down Royal, young Bryan was still coming to terms with it all. "Crazy," he said. "It still hasn't really sunk in."

Internally, of course, he is still the same Bryan Cooper. Externally, the whole world perceives him differently. The lag that reconciles the two is inevitable and will rest with the young rider to deal with.

Last week he demonstrated all sides of his scope in the saddle. From the cool that enabled him to calmly allow favourite Dynaste to overtake him on Benefficient before the home turn in the Jewson before successfully renewing his attack in the straight; to the rookie effervescence that permitted Our Conor to gallop into a premature lead long before the jockey intended.

Perhaps his finest moment was his acute positional sense throughout a muddy, helter-skelter County Hurdle that nursed Ted Veale into a winning vein. The Channel 4 pictures of the Kerry youth napping in the weigh-room just an hour before the highest-pressure ride of his life on Our Conor illustrates plenty about the temperament of the boy who last week became a man. Talent did out.

The trainer

It was 30 years ago this year that Michael Dickinson pulled off a 1-2-3-4-5 finish in the Gold Cup. He was just 33 at the time and admits now: "None of us realised at the time what had happened. We had a young team, it was new to us all but we did realise how difficult it would be to do it all again".

The pressure to get five genuine Gold Cup contenders fit and firing to the Festival on one day in March was immense. "I didn't eat a whole lot and all the worrying caused me to burn a lot of nervous energy." Dickinson lost a stone between Christmas and Gold Cup day.

Paul Nicholls has been the trainer to come closest to that legendary achievement when, in 2008, he led in the first three (Denman, Kauto Star and Neptune Collonges).

However, the impact of the changing of the old guard at Ditcheat cut very deeply during the most important week of the year. With retirement of the former heroes, coupled with the absence through injury of Big Buck's, Al Ferof and Tidal Bay, it made for many empty caverns in the Nicholls' Festival weaponry.

The fall of the normally sure-footed Silviniaco Conti three from home in the Gold Cup when still travelling strongly characterised the week of the champion trainer who looked like he wasn't going to hit the target at all until 16/1 shot Salubrious rescued a blank in the 'boys' race – the penultimate event of the entire pageant.

"It's been a bloomin' nightmare this week," was the Nicholls' succinct reaction afterwards – a mix of agitation and relief that there was at least some crumb to salvage from the Cheltenham banquet.

Some of the yard's runners simply weren't good enough, but many of the more fancied ones ran disappointingly.

Zarkandar failed to even make the frame under conditions that should have suited perfectly. Unioniste never travelled in the RSA. Sam Winner, the yard's handicap snip in the Pertemps, neither travelled nor jumped at any stage. And just when Salubrious had lifted the gloom in the Martin Pipe race, the gambled-on second favourite Ulck Du Lin ran a stinker in the closing Grand Annual.

No hegemony lasts forever. The Festival can be a sobering place and not even champion trainers are impervious. And time has only sought to enhance the scale of the Dickinson achievement 30 years on.

The owners

Despite his prevailing dominance as owner on both sides of the water, it took until the 23rd race of the Festival before JP McManus could greet home a winner. At Fishers Cross in the Albert Bartlett was the 24th horse of the meeting to leave the parade ring in the green-and-gold silks in pursuit of victory. Until then, the owner had 23 runners which had failed to collect.

Amongst them were particular disappointments. Hopes were sky high for My Tent Or Yours and Jezki in the opening Supreme Novices, but Ruby Walsh and Willie Mullins brought them to earth.

The same pairing was again responsible for denying JP's Regal Encore in the Bumper. And the heavily-backed Cantlow didn't even get to compete as it got withdrawn at the start of the Byrne Bros Chase with a bloody nose.

Having waited until the middle of Day 4 for a winner, McManus's only two remaining runners for the meeting ran in the concluding 24 runner Rubik's Cube that is the Grand Annual Handicap – and (typically ironic for these things) finished clear in first and second.

At least JP had a winner, despite the wait. The rival superpower that is Gigginstown House returns home trophy-less despite its 10-strong raiding party. The pain of the near-miss must ache after the event.

Sir Des Champs looked in pole position to win Michael O'Leary another Gold Cup when he ranged alongside a vanquished-looking Long Run on the home turn. Only for Bobs Worth to swoop in the straight.

First Lieutenant just ran up against a Cue Card which brought his absolute A-Game in the owner-sponsored feature on Thursday; while Rule the World would have been an authoritative winner of the Neptune on Wednesday had it not been for the talent that seems to be The New One.

It only proves – as in football – the girth of your chequebook is no guarantor of success at Cheltenham. And for as long as you can buy a Gold Cup winner for 20 grand or that a few lads can club together, come up with a Benefficient and celebrate like it's their final hour on earth, then the Festival will always retain the one ingredient that sets it apart – Atmosphere.

Whatever that is.

Irish Independent

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