They rode above the joyous tumult into the unsaddling enclosure, their features as grey as the heavy sky, their eyes far away – even Barry Geraghty, who had just crowned a defining week in his stellar career by winning its climax on a new young champion.
Bobs Worth had stormed up the hill to win a Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup that condensed all the addictive qualities of their calling. But the jockeys’ elixir, this time, had obtained an unpalatable bitterness.
One by one, through the afternoon, riders conjured an apologetic smile for the ecstatic owners and trainers who had provided them with the means to ostensible fulfilment. Otherwise they exuded only pity and dread on behalf of an absent rival, dear to many, whose sudden predicament had horribly exposed the vanity of even their greatest ambitions for this carnival. During the morning J T McNamara, the top amateur rider, had undergone surgery on two neck vertebrae fractured in a fall the previous day. Not one of his peers would hesitate to exchange 10 Gold Cups for good news now.
“I just wish it was a happier day,” Geraghty said, moments after pulling up. “We’re all very upset. You have to put it out of your mind when you’re racing, but even though this is one of the biggest days of my career, all I could think about was John Thomas. I hope and pray he will be OK.”
Injury to another colleague, Davy Russell, had left a vacancy on the fancied Irish runner, Sir Des Champs, and the timely withdrawal of Sunnyhillboy in the morning enabled Tony McCoy to take over. But the champion jockey’s grim expression riding back the winner of the race immediately beforehand, told how little his opportunity could mean. Wearing the silks of J P McManus, for whom McNamara has won several races here, he noted that the young jockey who had won the same race last year, Campbell Gillies, had since died in a swimming accident. “You have to enjoy these moments,” McCoy said. “But it’s very difficult. It is very hard to be happy today.”
The unsparing quality of their vocation was suitably reflected when the big race got under way, conditions having deteriorated rapidly with the onset of rain. Sam Waley-Cohen set a good tempo on Long Run, despite some inattentive jumps, tracked by The Giant Bolster. Silviniaco Conti was travelling sweetly under Ruby Walsh, while Geraghty settled Bobs Worth on the inside. Sir Des Champs seemed to be struggling for rhythm, but McCoy kept getting a response and, coming down the hill, they worked their way alongside Long Run.
Initially Bobs Worth could not match that move, and it was Silviniaco Conti who was going best in third when falling three out. There was still a long way to go, however, and whether he would have lasted home is impossible to know. The pair who had committed, after all, would prove spent on the run-in. By then Bobs Worth had regrouped, taking it up before the last, and Sir Des Champs could not sustain a brave rally on the hill. In the final strides Bobs Worth was surging right away, seven lengths clear at the post; it was another three back to Long Run in third, followed by another estimable campaigner in The Giant Bolster.
“He just struggled on the soft ground most of the way,” Geraghty said. “After a mile I knew he wasn’t happy so I just started trying to conserve his energy a bit. I thought he was beaten with five or six to jump, but he ran on down the hill, jumped the third last well, and from there I just held him together.”
Remarkably, Geraghty and his brother bought Bobs Worth as a yearling before selling him on at a loss to his boss, Nicky Henderson, after a market dip. Now the Seven Barrows trainer owes three of his 50 Festival successes to a horse still only eight years old. Bobs Worth is never flashy, but adores this hill and had won here as a novice over both hurdles and fences. After sitting out an intended rehearsal here in January, he arrived with just five starts over fences to his name. But Henderson was never concerned and duly completed an outstanding double in both the great steeplechases of the week, having taken the Champion Chase on Wednesday with a rather more flamboyant creature in Sprinter Sacre.
“As individuals, they couldn’t be more different,” Henderson said. “One is the biggest show-off in the world, the other hides his light under a bushel. But this is such an honest horse, a thorough professional who loves what he does and loves coming up that hill.”
Henderson was no less proud of Long Run. “Both horses had a rather unorthodox preparation,” he noted. “Bobs Worth hadn’t run since the Hennessy and Long Run since the King George, so it’s been a long old wait, a lot of work, and the team at home has been absolutely brilliant.”
Willie Mullins hopes that Sir Des Champs will be able to try again some day on better ground. Eyebrows had been raised when McCoy became so conveniently available in the morning, but Jonjo O’Neill explained that Sunnyhillboy had scoped poorly and will now go straight to the John Smith’s Grand National. The British Horseracing Authority had “no concerns” over his withdrawal, and in honesty few professionals could bring themselves to care either way.
Colman Sweeney put it well, after a fortuitous success in the next race. The CGA Foxhunter Chase is very much an amateurs’ Gold Cup, and Jane Mangan looked desperately unlucky when the leader jinked and unseated her on the run-in. “I am gutted for Jane,” Sweeney said. “But her falling and me winning doesn’t matter when John Thomas is lying there in hospital. I ride against him every Sunday in point-to-points and was sick to my stomach last night. You would have to travel every single road in England and Ireland to find a bad word said against him. And I don’t think you’d do it.”
But it is pointless looking for a reason. Yesterday it was hard enough to remember a purpose.