Long Run and his tenacious amateur jockey Sam Waley-Cohen signalled a new dawn for steeplechasing as a vintage Cheltenham Gold Cup produced one of the most dramatic climaxes to steeplechasing’s pinnacle race.
A stirring triumph for Corinthian values, this was also a supreme victory for youth over experience.
Waley-Cohen – a City businessman by day and part of Prince William and Kate Middleton’s social network at night – showed all the poise of a battle-hardened professional as he ensured Long Run challenged, and then eclipsed, past winners Denman and Kauto Star to set a new course record of 6mins 29secs.
This race probably brought their four-year rivalry to an end, but their gallantry in defeat was inspirational as Long Run defied the burden of history to become the first six-year-old horse to land this race since Mill House in 1963, and only the fifth since Golden Miller reigned supreme in the 1930s.
A belated first Gold Cup for Nicky Henderson marked the end of a challenging week for the veteran Lambourn trainer who had to withdraw Binocular, the ante-post favourite, from the Champion Hurdle after the horse was struck down with a mystery allergy.
It took a ride of epic proportions to beat the amazing Denman, who has now finished no worse than second in four successive Gold Cups, and Kauto Star, the 2007 and 2009 hero. How they fought to defend their reputations and retain the hearts of their adoring fans.
Long Run has now added the Gold Cup to the King George that he won so emphatically in January.
Henderson, reflecting on jump racing’s ‘changing of the guard’, said: “It was a great race because all the horses have run great races.
“Kauto Star was probably at his best today, but Long Run is a very good young horse. Sam gave him a beautiful ride. All credit to Sam; this is not exactly his day job, but he never panicked.
“The big horses were all there and he had to get through them, and he did. This horse is still only six, so there is a lot to look forward to with him yet.”
In a pulsating race, Midnight Chase, the early pacesetter, faded as the ‘old guard’ moved to the fore while the expected challenge of Kempes – another young pretender – never materialised.
It was Kauto Star, at the age of 11, who took up the running before being joined by stablemate Denman under a phenomenal ride by Sam Thomas.
Briefly, the Paul Nicholls-trained pair had the race between them before Waley-Cohen – riding for his father Robert – gathered Long Run at the penultimate fence and pulled clear by seven lengths, with Sir Alex Ferguson’s What A Friend a creditable fourth.
While retirement now beckons for Kauto, Denman’s jockey reported that his liver chestnut, at the age of 10, retained his zest. “The ground wasn’t the problem, it’s the speed they go, but he’s done a great job. He’s a pleasure to ride,” said Thomas.
This was a race of no excuses, with last year’s victor, Imperial Commander, fading four out. He broke a blood vessel, but will return next season.
With Long Run backed into 7-2 favouritism, Waley-Cohen was relieved to have repaid the loyalty shown by the equine guru Yogi Breisner whose patience has transformed his charge from an erratic jumper, who beat Saltburn trainer Keith Reveley’s Tazbar on his chasing debut 15 months ago, into a formidable steeplechaser.
The relief etched across the jockey’s face, his tongue hanging out as he crossed the line, showed that those early morning runs – and lunchtime dashes around the parks of London between meetings – had been worth the sacrifice.
Many had said that an amateur rider would not have the requisite fitness or tactical knowhow. That criticism hurt. It must have created some doubts but Waley-Cohen’s poise held as his family stayed true to the amateur ethos that epitomises their enduring involvement with this great sport.
So did the 28-year-old’s nerve. As this select field circled at the start, Waley-Cohen gently patted Long Run’s neck, both for reassurance and to pass time.
He just wanted the race to get underway as he sought successfully to become the first amateur rider since Jim Wilson on the Peter Easterby-trained Little Owl 30 years ago to become king of Cleeve Hill – the stunning backdrop to the Cheltenham amphitheatre where 65,000 racegoers had congregated.
“I want to say thank you to everyone for believing in me and the horse,” said the rider whose saddle is inscribed with the initials of his brother Thomas, who died from cancer at the age of 20.
“This is beyond my wildest dreams. I didn’t think we were going to get there, but he picked up, and I think he still had a bit left. When he got there, he saw the crowd and he wanted to stop and have a look. What a horse.”
After the French-bred Long Run prevailed at Cheltenham for the first time in three attempts, connections now want to race their hero in his homeland – the French Champion Hurdle and the Grand Steeple-Chase are options.
“We’ve had to work very hard to adapt his style to British racing,” said Waley-Cohen.
That would be a challenge in keeping with the family’s sense of adventure, but National Hunt racing here needs its heroes as the Kauto Star-Denman era draws to an honourable close.
If Long Run provides as much pleasure as these all-time greats, he will be very special indeed. Yesterday’s heroics were, hopefully, just the beginning of a long story.