James Lawton: 'We had Conor in the saddle, Kieran in the sky'

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The Independent Online

Redemption was in the air from the first charge in the shadow of Cleeve Hill and yet again it came in a familiar combination: raw courage and an Irish accent. Indeed, there was a point when you suspected that your man Patrick might put in an appearance on the eve of his saint's day.

Redemption was in the air from the first charge in the shadow of Cleeve Hill and yet again it came in a familiar combination: raw courage and an Irish accent. Indeed, there was a point when you suspected that your man Patrick might put in an appearance on the eve of his saint's day.

Instead, after Barry Cash won for the first time at Cheltenham with a magnificent finishing drive on Brave Inca which got the better of the equally perfectly-named War Of Attrition in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, we had to settle for the 37-year-old Conor O'Dwyer bringing home Hardy Eustace ahead of Rooster Booster by five lengths in the Champion Hurdle. It wasn't a bad compromise. O'Dwyer not only rode beautifully, he talked like a warrior poet.

Racing, everyone agreed, badly needed some uplifting work in the saddle after recent controversies and both O'Dwyer and the horse's owner, Laurence Byrne, were quick to speak of the jockey who might have been riding into the sunlight yesterday.

Kieran Kelly died on a fast hard track at Kilbeggan, Westmeath, last August, in one of a spate of accidents which also took the life of Sean Cleary in Galway and seriously injured Jimmy Mansell. The sadness of that came swirling back into the heart of the Irish celebration.

O'Dwyer had said before the race, "I was a good friend of Kieran, and though I'm delighted to get the ride on a great horse, it would be sad if I won - but a lovely kind of sadness." Byrne, a businessman from Co Carlow, choked on his tears when he said, "We had two jockeys out there today, Conor in the saddle and Kieran in the sky."

It was, when you thought about it, the whole mix of Cheltenham: the pain and the glory, laughter and tears and sentiment off the bridle. Even the ultimate racing tough guy JP McManus was willing to contribute a bitter smile when his fancied Keepatem was beaten by his other runner, Creon, in the last race. McManus had gone in heavily on Keepatem, the unplaced favourite. Creon won at 50-1, the Tote paying 90-1.

For the connections of the big-race winner there was time to salute the memory of a jockey who had done so much to shape a champion . . . and a time to savour again the moment of a superbly realised triumph. Trainer Dessie Hughes, who rode Monksfield to the 1979 Champion Hurdle title, knew well enough the exhilaration of O'Dwyer, who brought home Imperial Call in the Gold Cup eight years ago.

Said the jubilant owner, "We decided to run in the Champion rather than the Coral Cup on Saturday evening. Dessie rang up and said we'd made the right decision. I asked him 'what decision?' and he said we'd be in the Champion - and we would win." Byrne is not one of the great betting men but he did some profitable exploration of the market before O'Dwyer comfortably held off the defending champion going up the hill. "I'm not a punter," he said, "but I was looking about on Betfair and saw that he was offered at 320-1. So I had a tenner on him, and then I tiddled about a little bit more. I've got £62,000 to collect for what was only a fun bet for a non-serious punter."

For O'Dwyer there was the satisfaction of delivering a perfect ride on the horse moulded by his fallen friend. "I knew everything was fine when I cleared the last hurdle," he said. "My horse showed all the strength in the world." So too did that first Irish raider, Brave Inca. His trainer, 29-year-old Colm Murphy, schooled by no less than Aidan O'Brien for six years, speaks of a future star at the great Festival. "He is an unbelievable horse and his work at home would frighten you. He's improving all the time."

For the jockey, Cash, it was a victory on his first professional ride at Cheltenham. "I suppose it will take a little time to sink in fully, but already the feeling is unbelievable. I didn't know you could feel as exhilarated as this. People have been talking about how racing needed something of a boost here these next few days, but you if you're a jockey you don't think in those terms. You just think of what you have to do, and hope you can do it when it matters."

Cash and O'Dwyer have done it when their trade just happens to be under the microscope. They rode by instinct and with pride. They showed up hard and clean and brilliant. St Patrick was simply not required.

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