A MUD-SPLATTERED Long Run became the seventh horse to retain the prestigious William Hill King George VI Chase with one of the bravest, and most courageous, performances ever witnessed in steeplechasing’s mid-season championship.
The seven-year-old and his amateur rider, Sam Waley-Cohen, survived a hideous eror in the back straight before a tired jump at the last appeared to hand the initiative to Captain Chris who was finishing best of all in the remorselessly heavy ground.
Yet, to their eternal credit, Waley-Cohen and Long Run found hidden depths of reserves on the short run-in to snatch the race from the Richard Johnson-ridden Captain Chris by a neck.
Though Long Run, the 2010 winner and runner-up to Kauto Star 12 months ago, was the class horse in the three-mile contest, the respective riders could not have more differing records – Johnson is the second-most winning jockey in NH history with more than 2,000 victories to his name, while Waley-Cohen’s 33rd career win under rules came just 90 minutes before the big race on Rajdhani Express.
The win leaves Long Run on course to become the second horse in racing history, behind his great rival Kauto Star, to regain the Cheltenham Gold Cup in March.
Yet many will contend that this gruelling race will have left its mark on each of the nine runners, and that steeplechasing’s blue riband prize will be dominated by Long Run’s stablemate Bobs Worth and the Paul Nicholls-trained Silviniaco Conti after connections chose, perhaps wisely, to swerve the King George.
Understandably, Waley-Cohen – a City entrepreneur who rides for the love of sport – was just relieved to silence his critics on a horse that is owned by his father Robert who, coincidentally, is chairman of Cheltenham Racecourse.
“He was so brave,” said the winning rider. “I had to keep asking him, I asked him early and maybe I asked too much as he was tired but so brave.
“This is his fifth year of competing at this level and he means an enormous amount to us. That was racing at it’s best for me. I can’t put it into words. It’s an honour and a privilege.
“It was probably only when we passed the post that I thought he’d won. Dickie (Johnson) had gone past me, but I could feel him rallying. Dad has had every opportunity to put someone else on the horse, but he has always been really good and said he was my ride. I’d like to thank him more than anyone.”
Whether a professional jockey like AP McCoy would do better than Waley-Cohen on Long Run will always remain a matter of conjecture, but it is not going to happen.
The jockey’s younger brother, Thomas, died from cancer and his initials have been embroidered into Waley-Cohen’s saddle.
Long Run, the 15-8 favourite, did not always jump out of the mud with the aplomb of a champion – the pace was set by late entry Junior and Champion Court, with Waley-Cohen deliberately going wide in search of slightly better ground.
Having taken the lead six out – the well-fancied Cue Card never settled for the Tizzard family – Long Run promptly made a heartstopping mistake that boosted the unheralded Champion Court and Captain Chris, last year’s third, who coped with the conditions better than most.
With the better jump at the last, Captain Chris held a winning advantage before Long Run’s never-say-die finish which completed a four-timer for Nicky Henderson and handed the Seven Barrows boss the initiative in his personal battle with Nicholls to become champion trainer.
The victor is 6-1 second favourite behind the aforementioned Bobs Worth for the Gold Cup – while Ireland’s premier hope, Flemenstar, is due to put his credentials on the line at Leopardstown tomorrow.
“It’s going to be a different type of race at Cheltenham – I hope it’s not as testing or as wet. The earlier races here have made a difference to the ground,” added Waley-Cohen.
As for Henderson, he was full of praise for Waley-Cohen’s “brave” decision to take up the running six out and turn the King George into a stamina test.
He said: “It was a brave call to go on when he did and it was the right call to make. You would have to say last year was a disappointment but he’s been running good races all the time. It has been a great day, and with Sam and that horse to come back like that, it was brilliant.
“Not just to win the race, but to come back and prove quite a lot of points.”
There was a sting in the tail for the runner-up with Johnson given a nine-day ban (January 9-17) and fined £900 for breaking whip rules on Captain Chris.
He said: “I thought coming to the last I was going to win, but the other horse is a proven Gold Cup winner and he’s just outstayed me. It was a great run and I’m just looking forward to riding him on better ground.”
Grands Crus travelled notably well on his return from a breathing operation and just tied up in the final stages to pass the post 14 lengths further back in third. His jockey Tom Scudamore, victorious earlier on exciting novice Dynaste, said: “He ran a great race and I’m most pleased he looks a lot more like his old self.”
Of the others, Champion Course plodded on for fourth with Cue Card a remote fifth.
But this will always be Long Run’s day. Few champions have shown as much courage and resolution as the winner, perhaps only Desert Orchid ploughing through the Cheltenham mud to win his Gold Cup in 1989. He was that brave.