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Cheltenham: Young pretender Sam is ready to rule sport of Kings

By Steven Beacom

The tension was building. So too the anticipation.You could feel it biting in the cool Gloucestershire air.

As the runners and riders for the Cheltenham Gold Cup wandered around the parade ring, they were drawing admiring glances from the assembled throng.

Some whispered, for fear of annoying the horses.

“There's Denman,” a middle aged man, with a Brummie accent, quietly told his pal.

“And that's Kauto Star, he looks amazing,” came the response, as the two-time winner of the Festival highlight confidently strolled by before making his way towards the course, along with the other gladiators for what would prove an epic battle.

The stands, those offering seats and those without, were packed. Sardines could not have squeezed in. Gazing around from my vantage point on the tarmac close to the finish line, a sea of heads, thousands upon thousands of them, were eagerly awaiting the off.

There was a constant chatter, voices filled with excitement and questions that they knew would be answered in the minutes to come. Racing Post newspapers were rustled as anxious day-trippers checked the colours of their choice.

The sun had come out, the sky was blue and the breeze kept everyone cool, even those frantically placing the latest of bets with the on-course bookies.

The scene was set for a magical memory to be created.

The 2011 Cheltenham Gold Cup had been billed as the race of races with three previous champions, Kauto Star, Denman and last year's winner Imperial Commander taking on the young pretender to the crown, Long Run.

Everyone was desperately hoping that the face-off would live up to all the hype.

It did.

In fact, this was one of those rare occasions in sport when expectations were exceeded.

The famous Cheltenham roar greeted the start. Much of the running is well away from the

spectators, so the big screen and commentary provided became essential viewing and listening.

Long Run made an early mistake, inducing gasps and worried looks from those with money on the favourite.

Despite the error he was still on his hooves and still well in contention.

With the passing of every furlong, the volume increased. So, too the heartbeat rate in over 50,000 patrons.

Imperial Commander had looked good, but mysteriously fell back and was pulled up (later we would learn that was down to a burst blood vessel).

Kauto Star was flying, however, with the champion in 2007 and 2009, hitting the front to screams of delight.

Then Denman, winner in 2008, made his play coming into the straight, displaying awesome power to take the lead. “Come on Denman” thousands seemed to roar in unison.

The brash fighter was ahead of the classy boxer.

But neither were going to deliver the knockout blow.

Long Run, the six year-old bred in France and trained in England, was arriving to join the party.

To shouts, roars and squeals, that drowned out the big screen

commentary, the majestic trio jumped the second last together, before Long Run, in clinical fashion, started pulling away.

Over the last and up the hill there was only one winner. Long Run, coming in at 7/2 to the delight of all those who had backed him.

For a few moments there was reflection and a little sadness amongst the crowd, as there always is when glorious champions are defeated, but then came acknowledgement with warm applause for both Denman (8/1) in second and third placed Kauto Star (5/1), who did themselves and the sport proud, running wonderfully well, as did 25/1 fourth placed What a Friend, co-owned by Sir Alex Ferguson, looking a lot happier in these surroundings than he has done anywhere near a football pitch lately.

Happiest of all though were those connected with the new champion.

Trainer Nicky Henderson, troubled earlier in the week by the controversial withdrawal of Binocular from the Champion Hurdle, was beaming.

Owner Robert Waley-Cohen was as proud as punch, of his horse and his son Sam, who had become the first amateur jockey

to win the Gold Cup since Jim Wilson on Little Owl in 1981.

The Waley-Cohens have known tragedy with Robert's son Tom dying from cancer seven years ago at the age of just 20.

While nothing will ever ease that pain, this was a day for the family to treasure.

And a day for the racing world, and his many new fans, to salute Long Run. He received one final almighty roar in the winner's enclosure. It was fit for a champion.

Belfast Telegraph

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