Cheltenham: Long Run marks dawn of new era
It was everything you would have wanted on a sunlit diamond of an afternoon — and then a little more.
If you wanted courage and power and the possibility of heroic resistance to the passage of the years by two great champions, it was yours by the courtesy of Denman and Kauto Star. But if you wanted to be reminded of how it is that history is made, and a new order is imposed, well, you had that too.
You had it in the brilliant and powerful Long Run — at a mere six years old the youngest Gold Cup winner since the superior champion of 1963, Mill House.
Long Run was beautiful in his power on a beautiful day. He was also indomitable in the way of a natural-born winner and, when he moved with absolute authority away from the 11-year-old stars as they cleared the last fence and engaged the rising ground, there was one certainty which separated him from his predecessor by 48 years.
Mill House, for all the class he had shown, was engulfed in a year by the great Arkle who is still regarded as the most phenomenal of all the Cheltenham winners.
It is not likely, this side of some celestial union of the finest equine bloodlines, that the young horse which so thrilled and enthralled the Gloucestershire valley yesterday will be so easily challenged.
Indeed, there was more than a sniff of a new empire when 28-year-old jockey Sam Waley-Cohen raised his arm in triumph at the winning post.
Perhaps we should re-phrase that. Maybe we should say, when Mr Sam Waley-Cohen raised his arm because it was not the least glory of the day that when Long Run twice brushed hazardously against two obstacles it was not a master rider like Ruby Walsh, the pilot of Kauto Star, or AP McCoy, aboard the Irish hope Kempes, who was required to steady him down — and then drive him home.
Yes, Mr Waley-Cohen is an amateur but that status was about his preferred means of income — he earns his money in London as an accumulator of private dental practices — and no reflection on either his nous or his nerve.
Certainly it was easy to understand why he is so respected by the likes of Walsh and McCoy. He rides with the strength and conviction of an old cavalry officer who has seen plenty of action.
Thus it was quite some time before the finish when we knew that if Long Run failed it would not be because of any inadequacies in the man on his back.
But then it was inconceivable that either the horse — an extremely expensive buy in France by the jockey's father — his partner would fall short on the day of their greatest challenge.
Kauto Star, who enchanted the nation with his Gold Cup
wins in 2007 and 2009, made the first effort to put youth in its place, and was quickly followed by Denman, who never beguiled the people but won their deepest respect with the power of his running in 2008.
But if the veterans could make a show, remind us of what they meant so recently, they could not really take eyes away from the relentless progress of their young rival, no more than the defending champion Imperial Commander.
Denman and Kauto Star followed Long Run home and Imperial Commander was pulled up by his jockey Paddy Brennan. The beaten champion had burst a blood vessel.
The challenger was too strong and his rider was always in the centre of our gaze in his brown and orange colours.
Waley-Cohen knew he had reached the cross-roads of his
competitive life when Long Run hit the fifth fence — and some aficionados suspected that the horse's early, lower-slung jumping experience in France might undo him here.
But then the crisis had passed almost before it registered and afterwards Waley-Cohen said, “It was do-or-die at some of those fences and I went up in the air wondering quite how we would land. I thought, ‘you'll be eating grass if you don't pick up’ but in the end it came down to stamina, not speed — and he had the courage and the youth to get up the hill.”
Going down the one to the last fences Denman's jockey Sam Thomas had a brief vision of the glory he knew three years earlier, when his horse was too strong for Kauto Star.
“I knew I had Ruby beat and I thought Long Run was struggling, which gave me a bit of hope, but it wasn't to be.
“My fellow was struggling a bit on the first circuit because they were going so quick and I had to kid him along, but I knew he would wing down the hill and grab hold of the bridle.”
Walsh knew a little earlier that the story of Kauto Star was coming to a close.
He said, “He's run his heart out but age caught up with him. He did nothing wrong.”
Except, perhaps, linger into the time of a new champion, younger, stronger and with everything before him.
You saw the new shift of history going into the last fence. Kauto Star was running from memory and Denman suddenly realised that beating his old rival was fine and honourable but not to be compared with resisting this new challenge.
Waley-Cohen drove Long Run to the final barrier, and then felt the re-assuring strength, the sense that in the end the young horse had devoured all of his rivals. It was a fine and noble field but it was outstripped on this day of a new force.
No, you couldn't have wished for more.