THIS was a Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup from the Gods as the courageous Coneygree, a horse bred by the late Lord Oaksey and trained by his family, won the most prestigious prize in steeplechasing with an audacious round of front-running.
It was also a victory for racing’s romantics at the denouement to a National Hunt Festival dominated by the sport’s new multi-millionaire bank-rollers – the home-bred Coneygree is just one of 10 horses trained by Mark Bradstock and Oaksey’s daughter Sara.
And, 25 years after 100-1 outsider Nortons Coin won the Gold Cup for Welsh dairy farmer Sirrell Griffiths, Coneygree was the first novice to win the blue riband race since Captain Christy in 1974 and one of the few horses to make virtually all to win Cheltenham’s showpiece race.
The final result – Coneygree just edged out Djakadam – vindicated the decision of connections to bypass Wednesday’s RSA Chase for an audacious Gold Cup tilt and to stay loyal to winning rider Nico de Boinville, who had missed the horse’s prep race at Newbury because of suspension.
Still qualified to ride as an apprentice and better known as work rider to the electrifying Sprinter Sacre, this was de Boinville’s very first ride in the Gold Cup and he rode like a veteran as his mount, running for just the fourth time over fences, jumped for fun out of rain-softened ground.
The reigning champion Lord Windermere was the first horse to be beaten as Coneygree set out on the second circuit. The imponderable was whether inexperienced de Boinville’s mount, in his 10th career start, could retain the relentless gallop as their rivals fell by the wayside.
He could. Turning into the home straight, only Djakadam – ridden by the Festival’s winning-most rider Ruby Walsh – and Bryan Cooper’s Road To Riches were still in contention as fourth-placed Holywell, the disappointing pre-race favourite Silviniaco Conti and AP McCoy’s Carlingford Lough, an eventual ninth, began to falter.
Another athletic jump at the 22nd and final fence secured the most emotional of victories – and offered heart to all those at the very grass roots of National Hunt racing who can only dare to dream of results like this.
“It’s the best feeling ever, I’m lost for words,” said de Boinville after just the 73rd win of his career. “I could hear the rain coming last night as I’ve got a skylight in my roof which made me sleep better. The way he travelled, I knew they weren’t going to get near me – he was just nicely on the bridle all the way.
“It’s the first time I’ve ridden in a top-class Grade One – it’s a great feeling and I couldn’t ask for much more. He’s stayed on so well – he could have gone again.
“I go in and ride him most weeks and it just builds a partnership and I knew he would answer my every call.”
Coneygree was bred from the mare Plaid Maid, who was purchased by John Oaksey, one of the founding fathers of the Injured Jockeys Fund, so he could have some fun in retirement after devoting his life to the sport of kings.
He actually had wagered a bet that the champion’s older brother Carruthers would win a Gold Cup – but he never claim closer than fourth in 2010.
Lord Oaksey died from dementia in 2012, but his daughter Sara – who rides out Coneygree every day at her family’s stables in a quaint Oxfordshire village while son Alfie schools the horse over showjumping poles – paid handsome tribute to her father and his sporting legacy.
“It’s so unbelievable. In the last month I’ve been on the yard from 6am to 10pm, and it’s all for this,” she said. “It means anyone can do it. It doesn’t need hundreds of thousands. He doesn’t know he’s a novice, does he?
“I’ve been saying when we win the Gold Cup in the same sentence as I say when we win the Lottery, and I don’t even do the Lottery! So that’s how amazing it is. It doesn’t happen to people like us. The little mare Plaid Maid cost £3,000 and look what she’s done. Fairytales do happen. It’s because my father was the greatest. That’s where we’ve got this luck from; he deserved it and he’s looking down.”
The Bradstock family will be back to work today – Carruthers runs in the Betfred Midlands Grand National at Uttoxeter today.
As for Lord Oaksey’s widow Chicky, who is a familiar sight on Britain’s racecourses selling merchandise for the Injured Jockeys Fund, she is a member of The Max Partnership whose colours were carried to glory. “Could you believe that? I just can’t believe it and I have been asking myself what decision would John have made,” she said.
In an irony of timing, Plaid Maid was in the breeding sheds at the very moment that Coneygree was galloping to start.
“What’s so lovely is that the filly was covered by Kayf Tara at 3.15pm today, so the story continues,” added Lady Oaksey.
If only her husband, a great Corinthian amateur rider, had lived to see the Gold Cup. He would have been so proud – of his horse, his family and his sport. Results do not get any better than this.