even though Cheltenham Gold Cup hero Sizing John carried the colours of Yorkshire-born mining tycoon Alan Potts and his wife Ann to glory, this was a St Patrick’s Day victory for Irish racing royalty.
It was trainer Jessica Harrington’s first runner in the blue riband race, but this was no beginner’s luck story – this was her 10th Festival win and she has now eclipsed the redoubtable Jenny Pitman as the queen of Cheltenham.
And Gold Cup debutant Robbie Power – son of Ireland’s international showjumper Con Power – is a talented equestrian who competes at Hickstead when he is not recovering from his National Hunt ‘war wounds’.
Ten years after he won the Grand National on Silver Birch, this triumph vindicated Power after the 35-year-old told Harrington at Christmas to skip the Queen Mother Champion Chase and step the seven-year-old horse, so long in the shadow of the mighty Douvan, up in trip.
Pre-race doubts about the horse’s stamina – he became just the third horse after Brandsby trainer Peter Beaumont’s Jodami and then Imperial Call to win the Irish and Cheltenham Gold Cups in the same season – proved groundless.
Native River and Champagne West set a searching pace – a luckless Lizzie Kelly was unseated from Teafortwo as early as the second fence – while twice runner-up Djakadam travelled with ominous ease under Ruby Walsh.
Yet Sizing John was always travelling within himself, Power’s instincts as a natural horseman to the fore, as crowd favourite Cue Card crashed out at the third last in a carbon copy of his blunder 12 months previously – Colin Tizzard’s stable star was unscathed.
There was further drama when Djakadam clobbered the fence, allowing Sizing John the chance to seize the initiative and staying strongly up the hill to score by two and three-quarter lengths from the staying-on Minella Rocco for Jonjo O’Neill, with Cue Card’s stablemate Native River a bold third and Djakadam fourth.
“I can’t believe it, it was amazing how he jumped and travelled,” said a beaming Harrington, who masterminded the career of the iconic champion chaser Moscow Flyer before winning a Champion Hurdle with Jezki.
“Robert said he wasn’t going to go down the inside, but he did. It’s absolutely fantastic, my first runner in a Gold Cup. He was running over two miles, but it was Robert who said he would stay and he did.”
A European, world and Olympic three-day event rider, 70-year-old Harrington’s husband Johnny – a bloodstock agent – succumbed to cancer three years ago.
She added: “I’ve never had a runner in the race before so to train the winner – I don’t know when I’ll come down to earth.
“You can tell Robert did showjumping in his youth because I don’t think he missed a beat the whole way.
“I was thinking it was all going a bit too easy. I was glad that on the first circuit he put a few short ones in and he wasn’t winging fences. When he pulled him out on the second circuit, he began jumping well. Just at the top of the hill I saw Robert give him a squeeze and he flew.
“This is the jewel in the crown, I’ve been watching and listening to the race for as long as I can remember. He’s only seven so I’ve got to keep him right and mind him. I’ve no idea what he’ll do next, all I was thinking about was this race.”
Potts, who grew up in Great Houghton, near Barnsley, before setting up his own mining engineering business, shook his head in disbelief.
Potts, who has horses in training on both sides of the Irish Sea, said. “It’s unreal, it’s my dream and it’s come true. It’s our first runner in the race, the jockey’s first ride and Jessie’s first runner.”
As for Power, he suffered a complex fracture of his eye socket after a fall last summer. He faced a race against time to be fit for Leopardstown’s Christmas meeting when another defeat by Douvan convinced him to persuade connections to go for gold.
He said at the time that there were “six muscles around the eye not working together, which is causing me to get double vision”.
Yet his eye for a horse will never be doubted again. “I did everything I could to get back, I wasn’t letting Davy Russell on him,” said Power before acknowledging the horse’s original rider, Johnny Burke, who was a frustrated spectator at Cheltenham this week with his battered right arm in a sling.
“Unbelievable, Jessica Harrington is a genius. I always said when this horse stepped up in trip he’d win. Everyone has done a top-class job; it means more than any winner I’ve ridden for Jessica.
“I was only 25 when I won the National and I’m 35 now. When you’re 25 you think you can win everything, so this is very special.
“Going to the second-last, even before Djakadam’s mistake, I actually thought I had Ruby covered. Down to the last he absolutely pinged it and then it was just a case of seeing it out.
“It’s what every jockey dreams of and I never thought I would (win) until we got this lad.”