Racing: Eustace's win memorial to Kelly

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The Independent Online

It was a shocking result in the Champion Hurdle here yesterday, shocking for the very many who did not support the outsider Hardy Eustace and also an emotional swirl for those behind the Irish horse.

It was a shocking result in the Champion Hurdle here yesterday, shocking for the very many who did not support the outsider Hardy Eustace and also an emotional swirl for those behind the Irish horse.

Twelve months ago Hardy Eustace won a novice event here in the hands of Kieran Kelly, but Kelly himself is in more powerful hands now. The young jockey never recovered from head injuries he sustained in a fall at Kilbeggan in August. His memory, though, was all around yesterday.

There were smiles across the faces of Dessie Hughes and Conor O'Dwyer, respectively the trainer and jockey of Hardy Eustace, but more brutal emotions inside. Both said that Kelly should have been riding the horse and not the clouds.

"It takes a lot away from me because of poor Kieran," Hughes said. "This is great for all the people involved, but very sad when you think about Kieran at this time. I think he must have had a say in this."

For O'Dwyer it was just a second Festival winner, but the 37-year-old Co Wexford man does not deal in bagatelle. His previous success was in the 1996 Cheltenham Gold Cup. "This is right upsides Imperial Call and more poignant because of the situation with Kieran," he said. "I was very, very friendly with him, so all round it's been a very emotional day."

As in the race itself, it was easy to ignore Hardy Eustace in the preliminaries. There were the more fancied to consider in the parade ring, where Rigmarole was bulging like a gunpowder keg and Rooster Booster, the favourite to retain his hurdling crown, circled doe-faced and almost apologetic. Hardy Eustace plodded round unconsidered.

A run of five consecutive defeats, four of them this season, inspired odds of 33-1. It was not form to get the bells ringing across the countryside, but you could have grasped at Festival pedigree, his success in last year's Royal & SunAlliance Hurdle.

The Irish horse led from the outset, pursued by Limerick Boy. It appeared mere detail at the time. It was easy to take your eyes off the pacemaker as the supposed main players made their little chess moves in behind. Rigmarole was in midfield, Intersky Falcon further back than usual and Rooster Booster in last, his head was swinging from side to side, like a dog seeking liberty from the leash. Richard Johnson, on the favourite, carefully picked off his rivals until a full carving surge was engaged at the top of the hill. Around the final turn only one horse lay ahead, the one which was no longer an irrelevance. Rooster Booster drew virtually alongside at the last.

Then the script ignited.

There was a moment of disbelieving silence as Hardy Eustace first repelled the grey and then left him five lengths behind. The runner-up did not seem to see his race out fully but those in his corner did not seek sanctuary in excuses.

"That was quite possibly as good as Rooster has jumped," Philip Hobbs, his trainer, said, offering no excuses. "He was brilliant throughout. But, when he got there, he was just not good enough. He just met a better horse on the day."

It was something of a lonely experience for O'Dwyer, who heard other horses but did not witness much of them. "The only thing I saw out there was a head," he said. "Rooster Booster's. We went a pretty even gallop the whole way. He was enjoying it and, every time he heard something coming, he picked up himself.

"I thought one or two of the speed merchants might have come, but I also knew that if something did come at him he would be able to fight back. I was confident going to the last but I didn't think that he would pick up as well and win so easily."

Dessie Hughes has heard the hosannas at this meeting before. As a jockey he won the 1977 Cheltenham Gold Cup on Davy Lad, as well as this race aboard Monksfield two years later. He expects to hear them again in 12 months' time.

"I think he'd beat all those out there back here next year on that performance," he said, "and you'd have to fancy him again, unless something exceptional comes out of the Royal & SunAlliance Novices' Hurdle tomorrow."

Well it happened last year.