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Festival's golden memories belong to Nico, not Tony

By Ian Herbert

What brutality there is about the way that sport always moves on, finding new winners with such blatant disregard for sentiment and the sensibilities of those who have put their lives into sustaining it.

AP McCoy learned that yesterday. It was to have been Cheltenham's valediction for him but instead a new name was ready, with a story the likes of which we have not known for 40 years.

The champion jockey had made no secret of his yearning for a Gold Cup blue riband to propel him on his way towards retirement - "It's all about the Gold Cup, always has been," the Ulster great said as this day finally dawned - but some upstaging it turned out to be.

The roars echoing in his ears as he drove Carlingford Lough up the incline, the mist-shrouded Cleeve Hill behind his back, were for the first novice to win this race since Captain Christy in 1974; a horse which had only run over fences three times before yesterday and which had appeared here against the initial expectation of the stables who have coaxed something extraordinary out of his fragile state.

The prospects of that horse - Coneygree - seizing a Gold Cup field from the start and steadfastly refusing to let it go were never more remote than when the trainer's wife Sarah Bradstock first caught sight of the bay's mother, about 10 years ago.

"This tiny little mare that we bought for nothing, who people thought was a joke," was how she recalled that horse, Plaid Maid, last night.

And those are the kinds of misconceptions which have been attached since.

When Sarah and her husband Mark Bradstock sought to try him over fences last November after a pelvic injury which had taken two years to repair, a course veterinary surgeon at Plumpton told them - to their own despair and indignation - that he was lame and would not be permitted to run.

"I said: 'It's not any old horse that you are f****g about with,'" Bradstock related. "The vet told us: 'He's had two years off. He's not worth anything.'" That assessment had been rather shot to pieces by last night.

The stable's hopes of the horse running in this race were dealt a heavy blow when that medical assessment was made. They have always felt that Coneygree is the best horse they have developed - an even greater prospect than his half-brother Carruthers who won the Hennessey Gold Cup at Newbury three years ago - but they put him out over hunt racing's most punishing course with a fraction of the experience found elsewhere in the field.

Even in these past few weeks there have been niggles and doubts. A pulled muscle at the top of the eight-year-old's leg prevented him running in the Gold Cup trial.

As late as Tuesday there were thoughts of keeping him in the company of other novices by entering him in the Festival's RSA Chase instead. Horses are novices until the end of the season in which they first win a hurdle or chase.

But the Gold Cup was too much to resist and when the overnight rain persisted well into yesterday morning they were, as jockey Nico de Boinville put it last night, "more certain" that they could be onto something here, on this soft ground. How right the amateur jockey was.

Coneygree, bred by Bradstock's father, the late Lord Oaksey, went out in front over the first two fences, just as De Boinville wanted.

He dropped last year's winner Lord Windermere way back and wound up the tempo going out on the back stretch for a second time.

Silviniaco Conti, sent off favourite to win the race at the third time of asking, had nothing left by the final downhill run and neither did Many Clouds, fancied more after the rain had drenched the turf.

McCoy was halfway back after losing a length at the fence before the second ditch, and eighth as they turned for home. It was a lost cause.

Mark Bradstock last night talked of the importance to the small Oxfordshire stables of its loyalty to De Boinville, selected to ride this horse when bigger operations may have sought bigger names.

"It's all about the work he does, coming in whenever we ask him, all the work he does with the other horse as well," he said of De Boinville.

"It was never an option that anyone else would ride. We don't behave like that."

He was articulating the philosophy behind what had been a triumph of the underdog, in every way.

The patronising idea that the Bradstock horses would be better if trained at a bigger, more sophisticated, stables was shot apart in the moment that De Boinville rode home ahead of a field of monumental rivals.

Even yesterday, the Bradstocks discovered what appeared to a bizarre protest against the entry of their novice in this race. Someone hacked into the horse's Gold Cup registration with the Weatherby's central administration system, changing De Boinville's name for that of another jockey. Police are investigating.

McCoy had a last hurrah of sorts, in the last race which had been named the AP McCoy Grand Annual Handicap Chase in his honour.

The course which has been such an indomitable foe for the 40-year-old did not allow him a sentimental win, though. His mount, Ned Buntline, finished fourth.

There had been a moment, early in the day's first race, when he and his great friend and rival Ruby Walsh rode saddle to saddle, and the old times prevailed.

The new force of nature announced his arrival less than two hours later. In the blink of an eye the world moved on.

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