The first Cheltenham Festival of the millennium culminated yesterday with a Gold Cup which was a great parable for National Hunt racing.
It was a blue riband of great courage and fortitude with Looks Like Trouble and Richard Johnson emerging through the battlefield smoke of a quite brutish race. It was, however, an event also infected by tragedy. Gloria Victis, the new shining force of jumps racing, glints no longer. Martin Pipe's runner fell in a dreadful heap when exhausted yet still in contention at the penultimate obstacle. Damage to the young horse's leg was so severe that he had to be put down.
It was a shocking postscript to a compelling adventure. It was jump racing's stark ability to stab quickly at both ends of the emotional range.
There will be an empty box, a clean manger, at Pipe's Pond House stables this morning. But at the Upper Lambourn premises of Noel Chance, Looks Like Trouble's trainer, there will be a champion and a yard full of well-wishers. It is not an unusual scenario for the Irish trainer, who won his initial Gold Cup with Mr Mulligan just three years ago.
This was a result which did not sicken just those involved with Gloria Victis. Norman Williamson, the leading and much sought-after jockey, had been Looks Like Trouble's regular partner until he was sacked by the gelding's owner, Tim Collins, recently. Williamson rode the eight-year-old when he was beaten in Kempton's King George VI Chase at Christmas and it was to become clear that it was the jockey, and not the horse, which Collins felt had failed that day.
"Of course I'm gutted I didn't ride him [today]," the jockey said. "I haven't been given any explanation and I don't suppose I ever will. That's what's upsetting me more than anything else. The answer I got was that it was a bad ride in the King George. I asked 'what do you mean?', but I never got any more than that. Why not give me a reason? It's amazing.'' Collins did not enlighten us either. "As far as I'm concerned, in National Hunt racing, the interests of the horse come first," he said. "I've not made any serious comment about it in the past and I'm not inclined to do so at the moment.''
The owner has come some way since he used to wash dishes in the box of paper magnate Sir Eric Bowater at Ascot racecourse. He now owns a late-maturing piece of equine property which seems to grow more athletically competent with age.
Looks Like Trouble looked like just that for his 11 rivals yesterday when he emerged into the parade ring. He was monstrous yet relaxed, a noseband at his front end and a blanket over flanks. See More Business, the defending champion and warm favourite appeared small and forlorn, blinkers like black lingerie stretched over his head, while Gloria Victis was obviously the callow member of the party, snorting and throwing his head around in immaturity.
The young horse was the last down to the start but, as expected, the immediate leader when the tapes went up. It was, however, a phoney war for the first circuit, the hostilities friendly. All that changed as Gloria Victis screamed through the gears as the field passed the stands. Soon horses started falling off or dropping off the main body and even Looks Like Trouble himself was under vigorous driving down the far side.
The champion was also hurting, and, as See More Business was left in the scramble to the line, Looks Like Trouble and Florida Pearl, the Irish standard bearer, appeared behind Gloria Victis. They had it to themselves when the Pipe horse fell and up that final, searching incline it was the English horse who proved more rugged. "I felt I had a bit left because the way he jumped the last I knew he wasn't a tired horse," Johnson reported.
Indeed, it is courage which is Looks Like Trouble's most potent quality. He showed it in last year's Royal & SunAlliance Chase, which also resulted in gruesome injury to another grand young horse in Nick Dundee, and he showed it again yesterday. "He has got a high cruising speed, he jumps and he always battles," Chance said. "He certainly relishes a battle and once he gets in one he'll come out on top damn nearly every time.''
Florida Pearl hung on for second, but was once again bullrush strong in the closing stages, while Strong Promise finished purposefully to record his second placed effort in a Gold Cup. See More Business came fourth of the six runners which managed to come through the combat. "Stamina is his forte and on the first circuit they did not go a great gallop," Paul Nicholls, the favourite's trainer, said. "When they quickened it up second time round he was a bit outpaced, and if you are off the bit at the top of the hill then you are in trouble. But he was staying on well at the end and I hope we shall be able to bring him back next year.''
Martin Pipe cannot express a similar sentiment about Gloria Victis, but he too will return in 12 months' time, as most of us will. Once again the participants of the 2001 Festival will be all too aware of the peril championship racing occasionally brings, the despair that can be the trade-off for the great glory on offer. "It's great to win two Gold Cups," Noel Chance said. "In fact, it's probably a miracle."
Gold Cup result
1. LOOKS LIKE TROUBLE R Johnson 9-2
2. Florida Pearl P Carberry 9-2
3. Strong Promise R Thornton 20-1
9-4 fav See More Business (4th).
12 ran. 5, nk. (Winner trained by Noel T Chance at Lambourn for T Collins).Reuse content