Well, it certainly wasn’t pretty. In fact, with each and every protagonist exuding fatigue even before the home turn, it took steeplechasing to the very margins of presentability.
Yet somehow the verdict of Long Run’s rider, with just about the first breath he could summon after pulling up the winner, did not seem incongruous. “That was racing at its best, to my mind,” Sam Waley-Cohen said. “That’s why we do it.”
Certainly, there was nothing equivocal about Long Run’s superiority at Kempton yesterday, though he palpably explored the last seam of his stamina and courage in rallying for his second William Hill King George VI Chase in three years.
One by one, all the other horses that had contested a reckless gallop had dropped away, floundering through what was officially the worst ground for this race since 1937. And their exertions could suddenly be measured by the emergence of Captain Chris, who had been miles off the pace before arriving to pick up the pieces in the home straight.
With Waley-Cohen obliged to untangle his reins between the final two fences, Richard Johnson summoned a bold, opportunist leap from Captain Chris to take charge over the last. Long Run, in contrast, wearily fiddled his way across. The game was surely up.
But, however Waley-Cohen’s amateur status might occasionally betray itself, he is a match even for Johnson in terms of fitness and determination. And though the seasoned professional ended up pushing the whip regulations so far as to earn a nine-day suspension, Waley-Cohen still gained the day by a neck.
The odd imperfection in his riding, after all, represents barely a lesion in his overall dash and élan. Few nowadays grumble about his eligibility to wear the silks of his father, Robert, on Long Run — a horse he now knows backwards. Horse and rider have contested four Grade One races round here on Boxing Day, after all, and failed only behind Kauto Star as he gained a record fifth success in this race last year.
This time, the retired champion was here only to lead the parade. Clive Smith and Paul Nicholls, his estranged owner and trainer, appeared to succeed in avoiding eye contact – never mind a public rapprochement – in the paddock and Kauto Star was led away after leading the field only as far as the winning post. T
Cue Card’s followers, already disheartened about the demands on his unproven stamina, despaired as he all but fell at the first. In fairness, he regrouped to cling to the leading group almost as far as the home turn. By this stage Waley-Cohen, prominent throughout, had already sent Long Run into the lead — only for a shuddering error five out to allow the splendidly game Champion Court to hint briefly at a shock.
The outcome crowned another fabulous day for Nicky Henderson, whose four winners leave him hot favourite to relieve Nicholls of the trainers’ championship. Coral promoted Darlan to 5-1 joint favourite with Hurricane Fly for the Champion Hurdle, from 8-1, after his devastating comeback in the Christmas Hurdle, while Long Run will now attempt to follow up in the Gold Cup, as he did two years ago.
“Without Kauto, the door was open, but it was still hard work. It was a battle out there today,” Henderson said.
Long Run proved himself and Sam Waley-Cohen acknowledged: “I tried to take the sting out of them, but probably asked him too much. He was tired, but he was so brave. It’s just an honour and a privilege to ride him.”