Tony Stafford: My Cheltenham Week

Tony Stafford

Tony Stafford

Sunday supplement

By Tony Stafford 

Friday at Cheltenham was typical of all the Festival days I’ve ever experienced over more than 40 years’ attendance – I started late! – encapsulating the undying appeal of the experience. Rain, bad ground, bad luck and above all dashed hopes were there in equal measure.

I’ve always loved the Triumph Hurdle, but until Friday, no winner I’d backed – a fair number and some of the Henderson ones – or more frequently the near misses, even remotely challenged for my “best performance ever” accolade in competition with Golden Cygnet, the 1978 hero of the Supreme Novice Hurdle.

He won it by 15 lengths, making it six wins in a row over hurdles after a Flat-race career starting as a four-year-old with a win and a debut first but disqualified before taking up his true metier.

Edward O’Grady had picked him up for 980 punts. That price had long been shown as the bargain of the century for the first-crop son of star jumps stallion Deep Run when he lined up or the Scottish Champion Hurdle at Ayr. This was the first run outside novice class for Golden Cygnet and he was in the process of beating two great Peter Easterby-trained Champion Hurdlers, Sea Pigeon (who gave him 1lb) and Night Nurse, receiving a few pounds, when he sustained the last-flight fall that ended his career.

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This was still an extraordinary effort by a novice, but after being taken to Edinburgh University to make his recovery from the injuries, he died some days later from a brain haemorrhage.

O’Grady has been one of Ireland greatest Cheltenham Festival trainers, and another of that ilk, Dessie Hughes has not only produced a son, Richard, to be reigning champion jockey in Great Britain, but has known just how to win a Champion Hurdle, Hardy Eustace collecting the race twice at age seven and eight.

The 2013 Triumph Hurdle attracted the right horses from the right stables. Henderson, Nicholls and Mullins were all well represented, just as they had been all week, with feasible candidates, but they all were just making the numbers up. In the event Our Conor gave a display that for me was the best individual performance I’ve ever seen, certainly in the Triumph and probably in any Festival race, such was his superiority.

Unbeaten in three starts at home, the first two at odds on, the third remarkably at 100-30, simply because Mullins-trained Diakali, an Aga Khan-bred import from France had started his jumping career with a 12-length maiden win and then a 28-length Grade 3 romp over the subsequent Fred Winter winner Flaxen Flare, Our Conor had already shown everything needed leading up to the Triumph.

Not quite in the less than a grand Golden Cygnet class of bargain, he was still purchased for just 4,500 Euro before winning a couple of his six Flat races all at age three. A son of Jersey Stakes winner Jeremy, he campaigned at around a mile, but the stamina he displayed at Cheltenham earmarks him as a potential Group-race winner if sent over longer distances on the level.

Whether Dessie will be prepared to risk him changing codes again, though, is questionable, even with an eye-catching 84 Flat rating. No doubt, though, his ever-shrewd son will be mentally calculating how best to exploit him once the riches of Punchestown have been added to the Men About Town Syndicate’s swelling coffers.

I’ve not actually dwelled on the bare statistics of his run. Second behind his old adversary Diakali from the outset, he strolled along unconcerned until Bryan Cooper sent him into the lead around the home bend. He simply cantered away with nothing more than minimal urging, jumped the last as though he was starting his race, and surged up the hill for a 15-length win over Far West (Nicholls), winner of all four British runs after a debut third in France. Samategal, Nicholls again, was third, Diakali fourth and Henderson’s Vasco Du Ronceray and Rolling Star the next two home.

Trainers always reckon the five-year-old season is tough for grade 1 hurdles winners, but Katchit, nine-length winner of the 2007 Triumph, won the Champion the following year while Punjabi, fourth to him as a four-year-old, chased him home back in third in 2008 before winning his own championship the following year.

I’ve no doubt that Our Conor, injury apart, will win next year and maybe emulate See You Then, the triple winner in the three years after he just failed to win the Triumph as favourite after I’d secured 25-1 about him earlier in the season.

Punjabi was already in the saddling area, six years on from his Festival debut, while Our Conor was striding up the hill. Conditions were worsening as the rain intensified, but that possibly does not account for all the extra five seconds it took the 27-runner field of smart, experienced hurdlers to complete the County Hurdle ordeal.

Punjabi’s mud-spattered colours could be seen (?) running on into 13th, and Barry Geraghty told Nicky Henderson and me (yes those two talked to me before they won the Gold Cup!) that he was outpaced but stayed on and is sure to get two and a half miles. That seems reasonable enough given that old adversaries Solwhit and Celestial Halo fought out the business end of Thursday’s Stayers’ Hurdle, and Raymond Tooth hopes Punjabi will line up at Aintree for one of the handicaps.

Horses don’t like mud. Nor do phones, binoculars, spectacles, shoes, trousers or coats. My keen-to-get-away passenger showed not a jot of politeness in going missing at the time of our designated early getaway for his (not my!) hostelry, so I made my way to the car thinking he’d already be there.

Instead we had to conduct a conversation about whether to turn left out of the weighing room area, (“I said left!”), “so, I go right?” and that was repeated four times, until I set a new standard for the conduct of beached whales as I slipped in the mud within 20 yards of the car. Down on all fours with caked mud everywhere and phone and binoculars thrown clear into an even muddier patch, I was stuck. I wish I’d been able to catch up with the oldish couple who walked serenely past me presuming me to be drunk. Well I did have a tomato juice with extra Worcestershire sauce.

Not to worry, the winning bet of the day was that on Friday morning I’d replaced the ancient and irreplaceable Crombie with a warmer-, wetter-weather option in the Barbour raincoat with the deep pockets. Pity I’d not kept either my Racing Post (wet through) or bins in them. As to my long-lost and even a fair bit older colleague, when he finally arrived to see my dishevelled state, he merely said, “I slipped twice”, to retain the moral high ground. “Well you weren’t trying to give directions to a cretin, were you?” should have been my last word on Cheltenham 2013. To retain my dignity, I refused to wash the mud from the left side of my face until armed with some wet wipes from his car, I performed the task with due ceremony in Burford High Street an hour later.

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