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Cheltenham focus

The hero

There was a kaleidoscope of significance whirring around Synchronised’s victory in the Gold Cup on Friday. First, there was the trainer. Jonjo O’Neill, cancer conqueror, celebrator and cherisher of life, had won the Gold Cup before on Alverton in 1979 and, famously, on Dawn Run in 1986, but he had never before won the Gold Cup while watching from the stands. This victory was proof that sometimes the good guys do win.

Then there was the owner, JP McManus, whose investment in National Hunt racing is second to no other. It is difficult to imagine what National Hunt racing in Britain or Ireland would be like without McManus’s ubiquitous green and gold hoops, but you can be certain that, as both an industry and a sport, it would be a lesser entity than it currently is. If there was one man who deserved to see his colours carried to victory in a Cheltenham Gold Cup, it was JP McManus.

There was the horse. Rated a mere 143 when he won the Midlands National two years ago yesterday, you could never have thought then that Synchronised would metamorphosise into a Gold Cup candidate, not to mind a Gold Cup winner. The fact that his dam, Mayasta, was the first winner that AP McCoy ever rode in the JP McManus silks merely added to the significance.

And then there was the rider.

AP McCoy has long since run the superlatives tap dry. Breaker of just about every record than any other jockey has ever set, he has never not been champion, and his will to win even these days, when you would forgive him for slowing down a little, still sees him travel four hours to Cartmel for one ride instead of going down the road to Taunton for two, just because he thinks that the one running at Cartmel has a better chance of winning. (It won, by the way.)

You can’t say for sure that no other jockey would have won on Synchronised, but the horse needed the type of encouragement that McCoy consistently gives, the wind-up support, the confidence-instilling cajoling that enabled Synchronised to stay in the race despite the fact that he struggled for pace and that he lost a half a length or more on his rivals at at least 10 of the 22 fences. The top riders are the top riders because they make a difference, and on Friday, the champ made a difference.

In contrast to the owner and the trainer, McCoy already had a Gold Cup in his swag bag, the 1997 model, which he won on Mr Mulligan. But he was just a whipper-snapper then, and when you are a whipper-snapper you sometimes don’t appreciate the enormity of these things. You get the feeling that Friday’s win meant just a little bit more.

The Future

Among a whole host of top class performances and exciting prospects for the future, Sprinter Sacre and Sir Des Champs stood out. Barry Geraghty has never tried to hide the regard in which he holds Sprinter Sacre, and the Nicky Henderson-trained gelding lived up to the rider’s expectations when he took his rivals apart in the Arkle on Tuesday.

In similar fashion, Sir Des Champs oozed class under Davy Russell in winning the Jewson Chase on Thursday. It was just a Grade 2 contest, but the Willie Mullins-trained gelding could hardly have been more impressive in coming clear of a highly talented rival on the run-in.

Both novices, both just six years old, it is difficult not to think, respectively, Champion Chase and Gold Cup 2013.

The Irish

Five Irish-trained winners fell a little short of expectations and a long way short of last year’s freakish 13, but there is no call for despondency.

Out of the 27 races, as well as the five Irish-trained winners, 11 Irish-trained horses finished second and 11 more finished third. Last year, there were 13 Irish-trained winners, but only six Irish-trained runners-up. Last year was one of those years in which there was a disproportionately high number of Irish winners compared to the overall level of performance, this year there was a disproportionately low number.

Thirty-one Irish horses finished in the first three last year, 27 finished in the first three this year. There is no cause for alarm.

The end of an era

Few racehorses in Britain or Ireland are ever afforded a round of applause as they parade before a race. Frankel got one as he paraded before the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot last October, and Kauto Star got one on Friday before the Gold Cup, as the people strained their necks to catch a glimpse.

There was always a chance that Kauto Star’s attempt to land one last Gold Cup would end as it did, but it is a measure of the esteem in which he is held by the racegoing public that a spontaneous round of applause broke out in the stands when it was apparent that Ruby Walsh was pulling him up. Nothing lost, Walsh brought the horse back home safe and sound. Istabraq’s attempt to land one last Champion Hurdle in 2002 ended in similar vein, and his legacy to the game was not dimmed one watt.

It hasn’t been confirmed yet, but it has to be unlikely that we will ever see Kauto Star race again. Winner of two Tingle Creeks over two miles, a record-breaking five King Georges over three miles and the only horse ever to win the Gold Cup, lose it, then win it again, it is also unlikely that we will see one like him for some time.

© The Sunday Times, 18th March 2012