It was a day of drama, intrigue and poignancy here yesterday and it largely belonged to the Irish, who can produce a tale as well as tell one. Top billing went to the jockey Paul Carberry and trainer Noel Meade, who combined for a sparkling double with outsider Sir Oj and hot favourite Harchibald in the feature contests, the Robin Cook Memorial Gold Cup and the Bula Hurdle. And bubbling under was the sub-plot surrounding the loss of form of the Martin Pipe string, so pre-eminent at the Open meeting here just a month ago.
On that occasion, Our Vic led the charge. Yesterday, the seven-year-old started favourite to beat his 15 rivals in the main event, but made a hash of three of the first five fences and was pulled up by Timmy Murphy before completing a circuit. He was not the first out of an eventful contest, though; on the bend after the first obstacle Risk Accessor slipped and gave Tony McCoy a heavy fall.
The loss of the market leader sent a frisson through the stands, but all went smoothly thereafter as Our Armageddon and Therealbandit cut out the pace. Until the third last, that is, when the Paul Nicholls-trained Thisthatandtother, poised to overtake his stablemate Le Passing, fell and brought down Nicky Henderson's Fondmort, who had been galloping equally strongly.
The mêlée left Le Passing clear, but he was starting to run on fumes. His rider, Joe Tizzard, knew it as he tried to nurse him home, and behind him so did Carberry. Sir Oj, who neatly avoided his fallen rivals with a sidestep worthy of Phil Bennett, had most of the remaining field in front of him two out, but by the last, still with half a dozen lengths to make up, Carberry had Tizzard in his sights and his coal-black partner, named after O J Simpson by his owner, Brian Keenan, responded with a will.
"My lad was galloping, the other one wasn't," said the Irishman, "and I knew I could take him. Sure, you need things to go right, and they did for me when I missed the trouble. I lost a bit of ground, but I wasn't stopping."
Sir Oj, a 16-1 shot, won by a length, with five back to Lacdoudal, who pipped Brooklyn Breeze for third. And if Carberry had some luck on his side to take the £62,722 prize, all he needed to score on 10-11 favourite Harchibald was good judgement. The six-year-old has demonstrated in the past that he has his own ideas about his job - most famously when outbattled by Hardy Eustace in last season's Champion Hurdle - but yesterday he was simply in a different class to his rivals.
Going to the last running all over Intersky Falcon and Faasel, he was briefly hampered and had to be switched, but responded sweetly up the hill to score by a comfortable length and three-quarters and supplant Hardy Eustace as favourite for the title in March.
The novices' chase featured some of the best of the young staying brigade and, though credit must go to the winner, Exotic Dancer, equal plaudits are due to the runner-up, Bewleys Berry, who jumped magnificently and was clawing back ground at the end over a trip too short and who, it transpired, had trouble breathing throughout. "He'll run in a tongue-strap next time," said his trainer, Howard Johnson.
The much-vaunted Celtic Son, the 2-1 favourite from the Pipe yard, found nothing for pressure close home. The 14-times champion trainer has now sent out 37 runners without a victory and his strike-rate of five per cent in the past fortnight is in stark contrast to the 32 per cent of the man at the top of the table, Nicholls.
McCoy, rider of Exotic Dancer, lay immobile for several minutes after coming off Risk Accessor, but recovered to take the finale on Black Jack Ketchum. Mick Fitzgerald won the first two on Afsoun and Tysou but was thwarted for his hat-trick as Richard Johnson brought his seasonal century up on Mighty Man.
On a day when two great supporters of the sport, Robin Cook and Jenny Mould, were remembered in race titles, the action on the track was preceded by the interment of Best Mate's ashes next to the winning post, with the triple Gold Cup winner's close connections, and a handful of fans, present. A lone piper played "Amazing Grace"; the ceremony, on a bright, cold winter morning, was moving, dignified and brief, and quite properly so, given the perspective that the champion's owner, Jim Lewis, lost his wife, Valerie, to cancer on Thursday.