AS THE sell-out crowd piled in for the last day of the Cheltenham Festival, no one could have predicted how the day would pan out.
Trainers, jockeys, fans and bookies were all affected in the numerous bizarre stories that unfurled.
The first strange occurrence was that jockey Chris Timmons, who was due to saddle Achtung in the opening race, failed a breathalyser test for a high concentration of alcohol in his system. As a result, Timmons was banned from taking the reins on his only Festival ride.
If this wasn’t dramatic enough for the beginning of the day, Ruby Walsh was then to suffer a crashing fall from Abbyssial in the JCB Triumph Hurdle and was immediately taken to Gloucester Hospital.
News came later that the leading Festival rider had suffered a compound fracture to his right hubris, ruling him out of more than just his remaining Festival rides.
The second race finally brought a win for Paul Nicholls, who finished the four days with just that victory. Daryl Jacob had ridden the winner, Lac Fontana, but was then involved in the most bizarre situation many at the racecourse had ever seen. When riding towards the start for the third race, the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle, his horse Port Melon veered suddenly into the grandstand railings, demolishing them and the hoardings and catapulting Jacob from the saddle. Jacob was subsequently treated by medical staff and taken away on a stretcher; it was later announced he had suffered a broken knee, which is due to be operated on today, as well as a reported broken leg and elbow.
The trainer of both horses involved in Jacob’s up-and-down day, Nicholls, said of the accident: “The incident looked horrific.
“Thank goodness he rode that winner on Lac Fontana, otherwise he would have been suicidal. He’s ridden a winner and is generally in good spirits despite having a terrible injury like that.”
When the Albert Bartlett eventually got under way, after a significant delay from that debacle, the favourite Briar Hill fell to groans from the crowd and it was 33-1 outsider Very Wood who would keep finding more up the final hill to trounce his rivals.
The drama on day four did not finish there. The feature race of the day, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, was shaping up to be the two-horse battle everyone had expected.
Coming down to the last fence, Bobs Worth and Silviniaco Conti were fighting it out at the front and looked as if they would finish ahead of the rest of the field.
However, on landing, Nicky Henderson’s Bobs Worth appeared to be spooked and veered from one side to the other whilst tiring under Barry Geraghty. As Silviniaco Conti also slowed, three outsiders entered the fold and it quickly became clear the favourites were beaten. Lord Windermere, On His Own and The Giant Bolster were tightly bunched and, despite veering right towards the stands on the run-in, they finished in that order. A stewards’ enquiry into a possible interference by Lord Windermere delayed celebrations for jockey Davy Russell and trainer Jim Culloty, but after a long wait it was announced the places would remain unchanged.
Aside from the winning connections, this decision was not received with huge support, with many thinking the places should have been reversed, or at least altered.
David Casey, who finished second on On His Own, said: “The horse on my inside (Lord Windermere) has drifted across me and basically from a stride after the last, has carried me across the track. The closer we got to the winning post, the further he carried me, giving a slight nudge into the third horse. I felt at the time I was going to get up on top with a straight run.”
As a result of the controversial result and the poor finishes for Bobs Worth and Silviniaco Conti, the race was viewed as an anti-climax by many of the 67,500-strong crowd, with very few successfully predicting the winner.
After the drama of the Gold Cup, more predictable wins for Tammys Hill in the Foxhunter and Don Poli in the Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle followed. However, there was to be one last strange occurrence just before the final race. Tom O’Brien’s mount, Oscar Hill, refused to settle with the rest of the field ahead of the Grand Annual Chase, instead bolting across the middle of the track. Having been unable to stop the horse for five minutes, O’Brien finally drew the David Bridgwater-trained gelding to a halt but the combination had unsurprisingly been withdrawn from the race. The race was eventually won by the Savello, which gave jockey Davy Russell a 3,926/1 treble and owner Michael O’Leary a fourth win of the day.
In a week that could have gone better for Nicky Henderson, the local trainer who can return to Wiltshire with his head held high is Barbury Castle Stables’ Alan King. With a relatively small squad of horses at the Festival, King finished with an impressive tally of one win, two seconds and two thirds, and some exciting prospects for the future.
From the perspective of local jockeys, AP McCoy will return to Lambourn a frustrated man. The bruised Champion Jockey rode just one winner, on Thursday, but the worst part of his week is that on two occasions, in championship races, he was beaten by horses he had the opportunity to ride. In contrast to McCoy’s experience, Nico de Boinville will be deservedly thrilled with his win and close second on Henderson’s horses.