Cheltenham: McCoy shows class of a true Champion
It certainly sounded like the fat lady, and almost everyone had buttoned up their coats and left the auditorium. But yesterday it turned out to have been a spectacular case of mistaken identity.
It was a very expensive one, for some, but nobody should feel remotely defrauded. For while an unfortunate minority discovered only despair in the Smurfit Champion Hurdle success of Binocular, its essential message was that hope, at Cheltenham, really does spring eternal.
If not quite back from the dead, Binocular was completing the sort of resuscitation otherwise required only by those who come here not for a celebration of life, but contamination of the liver.
Last month his trainer, Nicky Henderson, in scrupulous obedience to his obligations to the betting public, announced that Binocular would not be running.
A close third after starting hot favourite last year, he had produced three indifferent performances this season. Henderson and Tony McCoy, his jockey, had concluded that Binocular was being inhibited by some kind of physical problem, and decided that he should have the rest of the season off while the experts sought to discover what it was.
In racing, however, there will always be people eager to make a cheap buck. And, pitiably, a handful of wiseguys got it into their heads to lay Binocular on Betfair, at 999-1. Half a dozen wagers were matched at the maximum price, and several more at other extravagant prices.
The sums involved, though modest, presumably sufficed to cause much choking on cornflakes when the Binocular camp intimated a dramatic volte-face, barely a week before the Festival.
Binocular then schooled with all his old elan at Seven Barrows last Wednesday, and was formally restored to the field last Friday. And McCoy knew yesterday after just two flights that his mount had come back to life.
Indeed, having allowed him to glide closer at halfway, he actually took a pull coming down the hill. He eventually sent him past Celestial Halo, who had set a strong pace in blinkers, after the second last and Binocular roared up the hill to see off Khyber Kim by three and a half lengths.
Life has certainly become complicated for trainers by an apparent imperative nowadays to keep the public informed of every lame step taken by their best horses.
As Henderson observed: “The anatomy of a racehorse is a very delicate piece of equipment. We were just trying to keep the public informed of the way we saw things at the time. We had a lot of people working on him. He went to Ireland for a bone scan. That revealed zero, so at least we knew that we couldn't do him any harm in persevering. It was more a question of muscular fine-tuning.
“It's impossible to say exactly what it was that made the difference. But luckily he has just bloomed in time.”
McCoy seemed pretty disgusted that the matter was even under discussion.
“There's only so much you can do for some people,” he said. “I was gutted with this horse during the winter. He wasn't hurdling or travelling the way I know he can. This is the first time that the real Binocular has ever shown up. I still can't believe he got beat here last year. To be honest I can't believe he ever got beat.”
Henderson has now saddled five Champion Hurdle winners, and at 59 finds himself perhaps with more strength in depth than at any time in his career.
He has, moreover, made a spectacular comeback of his own from the nadir of last summer, when
prohibited from making entries for three months and fined an eye-watering £40,000 after one of his horses failed a dope test.
“I had a good summer break, I suppose, and maybe I was a bit refreshed,” he said.
“In fairness, it was a horrible experience. We were just trying to look after a horse. That's what we do for a living.”
The notion that yesterday's winner would only wear the crown as regent had also proved premature in the opener, Dunguib finishing only third after being forced off the bridle for the first time in his career.
Admittedly the odds-on favourite was set plenty to do by his rookie partner, Brian O'Connell, who also chose to keep him wide throughout.
Once Menorah had kicked for home under Richard Johnson, Dunguib struggled to close the gap and instead it was Get Me Out Of Here who ran down the winner to a head.
Dunguib was beaten just under two lengths, but his trainer proved no less composed in defeat than he had been after Dunguib's various extravagant wins.
“We could all jump on the bandwagon, but I'd have no criticism of Brian whatsoever,” Philip Fenton insisted. “From the third last, we were probably fighting a losing battle - he was getting there, but not getting there quickly enough. I'm sure the horse has learned more today than from his four previous runs.
“We have been beaten, but he has come back in one piece and we live to fight another day.”
Totesport offer 7-2 against Binocular following up in 2011, and 10-1 about Menorah, Get Me Out Of Here and Dunguib.
But then it's hard enough to know who is going to run a week before the race — never mind 52.