JUMP jockey Ian Popham’s emotional Paddy Power Gold Cup success aboard Annacotty was the ultimate victory for perseverance.
This is a rider who has had so many injuries in recent seasons that the NHS has had to work overtime to keep him in one piece.
His catalogue of woe includes twice breaking his pelvis in the same season and then a hideous fall at Market Rasen on Boxing Day last year when he broke his chin and jaw.
These injuries required two metal plates to be inserted and Popham is the first to admit that he thought his career was over.
Yet Annacotty has always had a special place in his heart. When fit, he rode the horse to four wins – including the Grade One Feltham Novices Chase at Kempton nearly two years ago.
Even when owner Liz Prowting switched the horse from the yard of Yorkshire-born Martin Keighley to the stables of Alan King, she stayed loyal to Popham.
This was the horse’s first run since making the switch and Popham was overcome as he returned to the winner’s enclosure at the end of a gruelling race that saw favourite Kings Palace fade to 11th just one place ahead of Malcolm Jefferson’s Malton challenger Oscar Rock.
“He dug deep at the end for me and it’s a great training performance to win first time up without a run,” said the winning rider.
“I broke my collarbone in November and again in December, then I had a bad fall at Market Rasen on Boxing Day where I broke my cheekbone and chin.
“I missed both Cheltenham and Aintree and I went to France for the summer as I needed to get my head straight as things were not going well.
“This season has been a slow-burner. I only had my first winner 10 days ago. I’ve been working hard and riding out at a lot of places.
“Riding in the Paddy Power was miles away a few months ago, as all I was riding were 100-1 shots around Plumpton and Taunton, but you have to take the rough with the smooth when you are trying to get back on track.
“I’ll have to pinch myself, it doesn’t feel real.”
As for King, who was celebrating his first success in the race, the win held a special significance with Annacotty being out of Mini Moo Min, the mare that provided him with his first winner as a trainer at Towcester in 1999. He said: “We were happy with him at home and probably just the change of scenery has helped him and freshened him up a bit, because he does think about things.
“At the top of the hill, I thought we were in big trouble, but stamina has kicked in at the end I think.”
Volume levels were at maximum as Sprinter Sacre announced his return to form in emphatic fashion when making a triumphant visit to a winner’s enclosure he has enjoyed many magical moments in during his career, after claiming the Shloer Chase at Cheltenham.
Trainer Nicky Henderson said: “Everybody has done brilliantly with him. We’ve been happy with him and we are getting there. He just looks so different, his whole demeanour is different.”
Teenager Harry Cobden stole the headlines in the StanJames.com Greatwood Hurdle as Old Guard gave the 17-year-old rider a winner to remember at Cheltenham. The combination had been successful over the course and distance last month and repeated the trick.
Willie Mullins made no excuses for Faugheen after the Champion Hurdle hero tasted defeat for the first time when upstaged by stablemate Nichols Canyon in the StanJames.com Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown.