Tom Symonds’ racing diary: a fairy tale Cheltenham

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  • The saddest part of the Cheltenham Festival is that it always seems to end abruptly. Not so sad, of course, for livers which get regularly over-exercised during the week.

    If Hansel and Gretel found a house made of confectionery, then the average Festival-goer found a village made of Guiness. Unlike many racegoers, Hansel and Gretel actually remember leaving the house, but also left with their pockets full of treasure.

    In the land of all things rich with fairy tale, there was one lone wolf that blew the bookmakers’ houses down. This is perhaps the greatest gambling story I have ever heard – and happen to be close to. Anyone who ever has a bet has the ultimate dream of betting a little to win a lot. Although this can happen at Cheltenham due to the ultra-competitive fields, a bet working like the one in this instance is as rare as all the planets lining up with the sun.

    Nicky Henderson’s assistant headlad Conor Murphy had told me about this “ridiculous” but quite feasible bet he had had back in December, and of course it went straight to the back of my mind in the file labelled “no chance”.

    Though it may seem so, Conor is not a hardened gambler but one who flutters with regularity on a small scale. For him it is all about his job. He has certainly inherited headlad Corky Browne’s metronome-like work ethic and intensively cares for each horse at Seven Barrows.

    The fact that he had first-hand involvement in ensuring that each of the runners from Seven Barrows got to Cheltenham in full physical health makes this novelty bet more astonishing. Bet or no bet, Conor would be doing this to the highest standard anyway.

    He reveled in his already accumulating bet by watching the horse he rides every day, Finian’s Rainbow, win the Queen Mother Champion Chase. Nirvana was reached when Riverside Theatre won the Ryanair under an awesomely inspired ride by Barry Geraghty.

    I remember being completely flummoxed when Riverside was beaten in the 2010 Arkle Chase and many – including me – questioned the tactics and the horse’s ability to handle Cheltenham.

    Barry could not have made his point in a more positive way, because it seems that the reason why Riverside couldn’t win an Arkle is because he had only just got going after two miles. The extra five furlongs meant not only could Riverside display great courage in defeating Alberta’s Run – another expertly trained and tough campaigner – but also that Conor achieved what others fail to do in 15 questions with Chris Tarrant (make a million).

    I am absolutely thrilled for Conor and, as Nicky Henderson explained, it really couldn’t happen to a better fellow. He admitted that he would have settled just for Finian’s to win the Queen Mother, so the rest really is a bonus, albeit a life-altering one.

    Big wins for small trainers

    The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune were evident for Denis O’Regan on Wednesday when Cotton Mill brought a new meaning to “winging the second last”. His fortune was retold on Thursday when he steered Cape Tribulation to victory in the Pertemps Final.

    This was the first of two victories for Malton-based trainer Malcolm Jefferson, who later triumphed with Attaglance in the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys Handicap Hurdle.

    In what was a refreshingly good week for Northern stables, my former boss Peter Scudamore – partner and assistant to trainer Lucinda Russell – was involved with perhaps the most impressive of the aforementioned winners in Brindisi Breeze. His latest Haydock win had already received a big boost as it produced the very impressive EBF Hurdle Final winner Ambion Wood under top weight at Sandown the previous Saturday.

    In our preview at the Castle House Hotel in Hereford, Peter and Lucinda had shown concern for the lack of rain at Cheltenham, but it seems that he will probably be a better horse on better ground; the Skye (sic) appears to be the limit.

    A sky that has no limit is Big Buck’s, or in actual fact he could be more like a bottomless pit. While it was clear that Oscar Whisky did not stay the trip, Big Buck’s showed us a new dimension in dusting off a renewed challenge from the very talented Voler La Vedette.

    This very consistent mare would, much like Brindisi Breeze, prefer the better ground than the ground that she has been running on in Ireland. Having failed to settle behind Quevega in the 2010 running of the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle over 2m4f, earplugs were deployed and have seemed to help her settle thus stay further.

    Sadly her sire King’s Theatre died last year, but he certainly left an indelible mark in her, Riverside Theatre and Brindisi Breeze.

    This is also another example of a son of Sadler’s Wells thriving in the National Hunt sphere. While Oscar ruled the first two days, King’s Theatre and Old Vic (Sunnyhill Boy) took the mantle for the latter part of the week.

    McCoy and Sadler’s Wells: legends

    Not to be outdone by his overbearing offspring, Sadler’s Wells topped it all by siring the Gold Cup winner Synchronised. While there would not be many National Hunt breeders who could afford to send their mare to Sadler’s Wells, Noreen McManus clearly foresaw a very good cross (also seen in variable reverse with Bobs Worth) by sending her Bob Back mare Mayasta to Coolmore.

    Oddly enough, Mayasta would have been remembered in other ways as she was McCoy’s first winner in the McManus silks. A yarn with plenty of likable twists indeed, but the main one came in the marriage of horse and jockey.

    When McCoy rode Mayasta at Punchestown in April 1996, little did he know that she would produce the perfect partner for him. While he lovingly described Synchronised as looking like no more than a riding cob but one with a heart the size of himself, trainer Jonjo O’Neill also described the partnership of horse and jockey as like a hand perfectly fitting a glove.

    In much the same way as Paul Carberry brought the curtain down on the Festival with a masterclass ride on the difficult Bellvano in the Grand Annual, McCoy – Paul’s antithesis in style – gave the crowd a reminder as to why he is 16 times champion jockey. Sheer guts, determination and courage were displayed by both McCoy and his equine die-hard ally in the Gold Cup. While the best horse may not have won, true grit certainly did. The Giant Bolster put in an excellent round of jumping, and without the star-crossed McCoy and Synchronised would have been triumphant.

    The other improved performer was Time For Rupert, who travelled with more ease and alacrity than before.

    Long Run was perfectly placed throughout but seemed to lack the finishing kick that he so impressively displayed last year. Disappointing as it seemed, it could be that he takes a year to get over a couple of hard races last season. It is also worth remembering that he is still only a seven year old.

    Horses didn’t regain Gold Cups but a certain Kauto Star rewrote that statistic so you never know. It will be an interesting division next season with this year’s freshmen, including Sire Des Champs, Bobs Worth and Hunt Ball, becoming sophomores.

    A blank weekend for us

    While others dealt with a Cheltenham hangover, I hoped for a bit of luck on Saturday at Kempton, Ffos Las and Uttoxeter. While success was not to be found Tweedledrum gave hope that she may – on a day of her choice – be first past the post. Of the other runners, all returned home sound but were disappointing with reasons not immediately apparent.

    Yesterday I did have the pleasure of having a tour around the Olympic Project. I thought renewing Dason Court with the pressure of a completion date was a challenge, but this is a whole new level. Obviously there is slightly more money behind this project, but the vision and inspiration of turning around what was basically a landfill site is incredible. “Ex nihilo” is from what God created the earth, and this project would run along a similar theme. I cannot wait for the Games to start and as Lord Coe pointed out, there are only 18 Sundays left.

    We move on to Aintree

    Aintree is the next major battle ground for champion trainer Paul Nicholls and heir apparent Nicky Henderson. Nicky’s team does seem a cut above all other trainers, but as ever the Grand National could prove a pivotal point in the battle. Neither trainer has ever triumphed in this famous steeplechase, so it would be a good time for either to have their inaugural victory.

    The last word must go to Kauto Star who pulled up in the Gold Cup. Although retirement was not immediate, after an illustrious and record-breaking career when retirement time does come, let Dr Seuss guide you in saying: “don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”

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