The win in the Ultima Handicap Chase was his first at jump racing’s flagship fixture and a second for Yorkshire training legends Sue and Harvey Smith who watched the race at their stables on Baildon Moor.
And racing’s respect for the Smiths, the mercurial Mania and owner Trevor Hemmings, who bred Vintage Clouds, meant this 28-1 success was as popular as Rachel Blackmore’s classy win on Honeysuckle when she became the first female jockey to win the Unibet Champion Hurdle.
Yet the absence of crowds did not detract from the significance of these successes for Blackmore, now established as one of Ireland’s premier jockeys, or Mania who has been rebuilding his career after returning to the saddle 18 months ago.
Victorious in the 2013 Grand National on the Smith-trained Auroras Encore, he quit the sport in November 2014 – few were aware back then of the extent of his struggles with weight and mental health – before returning five years later.
He ha not looked back and this ride, virtually making all, was emblematic of his horsemanship over steeplechase fences. “It hasn’t really sunk in yet. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d come and ride a Cheltenham winner, especially so soon after coming out of retirement. I couldn’t be happier,” he said.
“It’s unbelievable. It’s a shame my first Festival winner comes under these circumstances, but it truly doesn’t matter. It’s a very memorable day.”
“Realistically we thought he had a good each-way chance - that’s all you can really hope for coming to Cheltenham. We were confident he would run his race as he always does – he’s a real determined warrior.”
This view was shared by an overwhelmed Sue Smith who opted not to drive to Cheltenham “because somebody had to look after the shop at home”. Instead her husband Harvey’s grandson Joel, their assistant trainer, had the honour.
This was the horse’s fifth run in the race and Smith told The Yorkshire Post: “Harvey and I were sat here shouting at the television while Trevor (Hemmings) phoned to say he rode the race.
“He was superb, wasn’t he? He jumped great and Ryan gave him a top class ride. He does love it round there and the ground was in his favour. You can’t ask for more.
“It’s another Cheltenham Festival winner (after Mister McGoldrick in 2008) and you may not have expected it with another 11-year-old. He had a bit of a wind op and it has absolutely turned the old horse around. We could go to the Scottish National all being well.”
It was a spectacular opening day that began with Appreciate It, a new star, winning the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. Shishkin, steeplechasing’s new superstar, won the Arkle Trophy before Honeysuckle made Champion Hurdle history for Blackmore who was left “speechless”.
After a difficult build-up to Cheltenham, this was the vintage day that racing badly needed – and thanks, in no small part, to the Yorkshire horse who proved so gallantly that every cloud does, in fact, have a silver lining.
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