Cheltenham: Church hush follows Dundee's fall

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The Independent Online
THE FESTIVAL nearly died here yesterday, in the time it took Nick Dundee to turn from a cruising champion to a tangled mess of legs on the landing side of Cheltenham's notorious downhill fence. As he struggled to his feet, the horse that most of Ireland had come to back started to hop and stagger on just three legs, normally the sign of a broken bone and an imminent bullet. Looks Like Trouble, who was left clear by the fall and won the Royal & SunAlliance Chase in a canter, met the hush of a church as he galloped past the stunned grandstands a few seconds later.

By the evening, though, the news seemed better. Nick Dundee stood on all four legs and then walked into the horse ambulance a few minutes after his fall. Philip Arkwright, the clerk of the course, reported that "the vet at the scene thought there would be no permanent damage and the prospects look good".

It meant that the crowds who had left hundreds of thousands of pounds in the betting ring could at least walk out of the gate with something to cling to. It was the memory of Nick Dundee as a brown monster galloping smoothly down the hill, full of running and with all but one of his rivals long since beaten off. It is an image which will still be sharp if he ever returns to Cheltenham for a Gold Cup.

The only consolation for the Irish punters as their tickets hit the floor was that Looks Like Trouble was ridden by one Irishman, Paul Carberry, and trained by another, Noel Chance. He must also be a fine prospect to have lived with Nick Dundee's remorseless gallop for as long as he did, though there seems little doubt that he would have finished an honourable second but for the favourite's fall.

The failure of Nick Dundee brought a sudden halt to a golden run for the punters. Barton, who was backed down to 2-1 favourite for the Royal & SunAlliance Hurdle, galloped right away from his field to win by nine lengths, while the closing stages of the Queen Mother Champion Chase were fought out by Edredon Bleu and Call Equiname, the first and second favourites.

As he was led back towards the runner-up's position, Tony McCoy, Edredon Bleu's jockey, was twisting in his saddle to watch a replay of the closing stages on the giant screen above the paddock. To judge by the look of puzzlement on his face, he was trying to work out what had gone wrong. He had led over the last on Edredon Bleu, and was still going well enough to think that nothing would come past him. With half a furlong to run, though, something did.

But if McCoy was surprised, the grandstands were less so, for Call Equiname had been quietly tracking Edredon Bleu from the top of the hill. Mick Fitzgerald had judged the race perfectly, and knew very well that Call Equiname cannot hit the front until the final strides. His challenge was delivered with split-second precision, to claim both the pounds 73,000 first prize, and a pounds 60,000 bonus for adding the Champion Chase to his win in the Victor Chandler Chase.

"This was always my nap of the meeting," Paul Nicholls, his trainer, said afterwards. "He has given us plenty of headaches and has been pin- fired, bar-fired and implanted. His legs have been problems but as his unbeaten record suggest, he is a very good horse."

Barton's future, meanwhile, will be planned with a return to the Festival for next year's Champion Hurdle as the prime objective. Istabraq, of course, is already a 7-4 chance for that race, but with Barton's astonishingly easy success yesterday, the two novice hurdles at this year's meeting have been won by a total of 26 lengths. Barton is now a 10-1 chance for the 2000 Champion Hurdle, and the first championship of the next century could well turn out to be one of the best.

The Coral Cup, yesterday's big handicap, was a greenwash for the Irish, who provided the first five horses home. The one horse they wanted above all to win yesterday, though, was Nick Dundee. His defeat cast a cloud over the Festival, and only a victory for Florida Pearl in this afternoon's Gold Cup will blow it away.