Please Zay it ain’t so, Nicky
For a few seconds after they had passed the post, trainer Nicky Henderson stared blankly down at the muddy track, deaf to the excited conversations beginning all around him. Then he turned, looked expressively at Zaynar's stunned owners, and descended to Kelso’s unsaddling enclosure.
Nobody had backed their horse, at 1-14, and every face seemed animated — either by an unexpected dividend, from an optimistic punt on Quwetwo, or simply by a sense of having witnessed something extraordinary.
When they recognised Henderson, they respectfully assumed a countenance of due solemnity. But you could tell what they were thinking. Having brought their unbeaten champion to the banks of the Tweed, the English had been sent homeward, tae think again.
It had seemed a quaint project, beforehand, but hardly a menacing one. How pleasant, to watch the Smurfit Champion Hurdle favourite from the wrought iron balcony of a Georgian grandstand, against a swaying backdrop of Border hill country.
Only three other horses dared to take him on for the Morebattle Hurdle, and two were dismissed at 50-1 and 100-1. Victor Chandler, one of Zaynar's owners, had even dipped into his pocket to sponsor the race.
But Henderson had watched the preceding races with some disquiet, noting the exhaustion infecting almost all the finishers. And then Quwetwo, harried by one of the outsiders, set off so fast that Barry Geraghty, having his first ride here, afterwards admitted that Zaynar was struggling for air even in the back straight.
Off the bridle on the turn, the favourite never looked like getting past his giant rival and there was still a length in it when they reached the end of what is, at the best of times, an exorbitantly long run-in.
Henderson found Graham Wylie, Quwetwo's owner, and shook his hand. Wylie apologised for his horse's unexpected success. “These things happen,” Henderson replied. “But he's too big — it's not fair!”
Having been obliged to bring Binocular's season to a premature end the previous day, Henderson has had a vexing week with his top hurdlers. All things considered, he was bearing himself with commendable fortitude.
“You'll probably be surprised to hear me say that I'm pleased I brought him here,” he said. “If it had been off, I had decided that he would go straight to Cheltenham and it turns out that he needed that quite badly. They have set off to find him out, and they have. The winner's a great big horse who was ploughing a furrow out there.
“It's obviously disappointing, we would have wanted to go to Cheltenham with his record intact, but this isn't March 16. We've just got to be grown up about it. Kelso have done a great job getting this on.”
Henderson confirmed that Zaynar will be fitted with cheekpieces in the Champion, for the first time since he won the JCB Triumph Hurdle at last year's Festival.