THERE was an irony to the fluctuating fortunes of Barry Geraghty and Ruby Walsh, who enhanced their big-race reputations at a dramatic Cheltenham Festival which took a heavy toll on its jockeys.
Walsh, so dominant on day one, regained the Champion Hurdle on Hurricane Fly after having sufficient nimbleness to swerve Grandouet who had crashed to the floor under a luckless Geraghty.
How ironic, therefore, that Geraghty and Bobs Worth should be sidestepping the stricken Walsh and Silviniaco Conti after they fell at the third-last fence in a pulsating Gold Cup yesterday.
Yet, while AP McCoy’s final day double on At Fishers Cross and Alderwood enabled the 17-time champion to grace the Cheltenham winner’s enclosure, the 2013 Festival reaffirmed the view that Walsh and Geraghty’s big-race jockeyship is unrivalled.
They are masters of their craft – staying awake until the small hours studying the form book before showing nerves of steel to make the tough decisions that are required in the hurly-burly of a championship race.
Walsh’s four winners meant he finished the week as leading rider, just pipping Geraghty and young Bryan Cooper after the latter’s ‘coming of age’ final day double yesterday headlined by Our Conor’s emphatic win in the JCB Triumph Hurdle.
Contrast this with the despair of all those who left Cheltenham empty-handed. Big name trainers like David Pipe and Donald McCain drew blanks. So did jockeys of the calibre of Richard Johnson, Tom Scudamore and Jason Maguire while there was no Northern-trained winner, though John Quinn’s Countrywide Flame ran with enormous credit to finish third in the Champion Hurdle.
This list would have included multiple champion trainer Paul Nicholls before his nephew Harry Derham rode Salubrious to victory in the meeting’s penultimate race.
Alderwood’s success in the final race for Thomas Mullins, following up his County Hurdle win of 12 months ago, saw Irish-trained horses beat British 14-13.
The win for Mullins meant that his brother Willie – victorious earlier in the week with the likes of Hurricane Fly – finished ahead of Nicky Henderson in the race to be the meeting’s leading trainer thanks to five victories on the meeting’s first two days.
Both Mullins and Henderson are likely to dominate for several seasons, especially given that the key to so many Festival races this year was horses with winning Cheltenham form.
Inevitably, the weighing room’s thoughts were with stricken jockey JT McNamara and Davy Russell, the latter riding in two races on Thursday before it became clear that he had suffered a punctured lung in a fall 24 hours previously.
These are jockeys who, just like their horses, put their lives on the line whenever they go into battle, a fact that enabled many of the week’s luckless riders and trainers to put their setbacks into perspective.
It also explained why Henderson was so phlegmatic after he rewrote the training manual to land his second Gold Cup in three years, this time courtesy of the small, lightly-raced warrior Bobs Worth – a horse that has only raced once previously this season, winning Newbury’s Hennessy in late November, before being fine-tuned to perfection on the trainer’s gallops at Lambourn.
“It has been a long old week, hasn’t it?” he said.
“It’s dreams, isn’t it? Sprinter Sacre was something special in the Champion Chase and Barry gave Bobs Worth a lovely, patient ride.”
Recalling his heartbreak at losing Darlan, a potential horse of a lifetime, at Doncaster last month, Henderson continued: “What we go through is never easy and it has its ups and downs but when it happens it’s great.
“It has been a long wait because we haven’t run either Gold Cup horse – Bobs Worth hasn’t run since the Hennessy and Long Run since the King George – so it’s a long, old time.
“There is only three weeks until Aintree so I am not sure Bobs Worth would go there. We’ll see how he is next week.
“There is also Punchestown but we’ll just see how he is, but Long Run could easily go to Aintree.”
Henderson, who served his training apprenticeship with the legendary Fred Winter, added: “It’s my 50th Festival winner. If you had asked me 50 years ago about it, you would say that it was absolutely ridiculous.”
On this evidence, with horses like Bobs Worth, Sprinter Sacre and Arkle winner Simonsig still approaching their jumping prime, Henderson’s domination is likely to continue for many years as he usurps his great rival Nicholls.
But, as every Cheltenham combatant will testify, there is one trait that is more important than any other at the home of jump racing – luck.