St Patrick’s day rounded off what has been a more than tolerable week for the Irish. Their major hope for this meeting’s showcase, Beef or Salmon, may have failed once again to bring home the spoils, but an Irish 1-2-3 in Friday’s big race ensured that heads will be held high across the Irish sea this weekend.

Last year’s Grand National winner, Hedgehunter, gave the Mouse Morris-trained War of Attrition a tough run for his money up the final hill, and in spite of showing just how much talent he has, he and jockey Ruby Walsh had to settle for second best. Forget the Past, with Barry Geraghty on board made up third of the Irish trio, holding off the French contender L’Ami.

Winning jockey Connor O’Dwyer, who won this race ten years ago, was overcome by his victory on the seven-year-old, who is only in his third season racing. He told Channel 4:

“It was an easy ride, he pinged the last two fences when he just stood off and he loves racing. This is an emotional moment and we made the right decision to come here – it has paid off.

“He jumped super and we had a great run – I had to come wide but he is only a second-season novice so I didn’t want to be too tight on him either.”

O’Dwyer’s delight was matched by that of Willie Mullins, trainer of Hedgehunter, who had thought the pace might be just too strong for the 10-year-old.

“The pace was quick for the first half mile, but he settled into it, and ran a fantastic win. I’ve fancied War of Attrition for this race since the autumn, and I am delighted to have finished second to a fantastic Gold Cup winner.”

As a result of the absence of several high-profile chasers – including 2004 winner Best Mate and last year’s winner Kicking King – a wide-open race of 24 starters set off. Beef or Salmon was the strongly-backed favourite in his fourth attempt at the Blue Riband of steeple-chasing, but even his trainer Michael Hourigan was resigned to the fact that the horse doesn’t like racing outside Ireland.

Organisers at Cheltenham were quick to refute suggestions on Thursday night that a higher than average death toll of horses over the first three days had overshadowed this year’s meeting.

Five horses were killed during the course of Thursday’s racing – equalling the highest toll for one day at Cheltenham, and seven horses were accounted for during the first three days of the meeting – the worst highest number of fatalities since 1996.

Managing Director of the racecourse, Edward Gillespie, explained that there was no rhyme or reason to this year’s high death toll, and that it was pure coincidence: “It is very sad when horses die during racing, but there does not seem to be any pattern to these deaths. And I would point out that there have been eight days of racing here this season when there haven’t been any fatalities at all.”

As a result of what has been termed the “curse of Cheltenham” by many – the death of leading contenders (including Best Mate) for feature races at this year’s Gold Cup meeting – there have been record entries for many of this year’s races, as trainers take advantage of the open fields. RSPCA equine specialist David Muir has pointed to this as a possible cause of so many fatalities.

“A higher number of horses in races creates a greater risk and it may be that racing will have to limit the numbers. I’ve been to Cheltenham today and I will be there tomorrow. I want to look at each of the instances individually.”

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