Racing: Fota Island seals Festival record for Irish

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The Independent Online

It fell to the handicap chaser Fota Island, winner of the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Challenge Cup, to weave another little bit of history into Ireland's Cheltenham tapestry. The nine-year-old, trained by Mouse Morris at Fethard, Co Tipperary, became the ninth Irish-trained winner of the week - after Hardy Eustace, Spot Thedifference, Dabiroun, Moscow Flyer, Missed That, Another Rum, Oulart, and Kicking King himself - a record for the raiders at the Festival.

The previous best came back in 1958, from a total of 20 races at a three-day meeting. This time, at the first four-day extravaganza, there were 24 contests, and it took until the penultimate one to pass the old landmark.

Appropriately, Fota Island, steered skillfully by Paul Carberry to avoid the menacing attentions of a riderless rival after he took the lead two out, carries the colours of one of Ireland's most famous racing personas, the legendary punter JP McManus. But his 7-1 success availed his owner naught in his battle with the ring. "I didn't care whether this one or my other runner Ground Ball [a faller three out] won," he said. "I hadn't backed either."

Graham Lee's second place in the two-miler on Bambi De L'Orme was enough to give him the trophy for the meeting's leading rider. The Irishman broke his Festival virginity in the opening race on Arcalis and followed up on No Refuge and Inglis Drever, and although his treble was matched by Robert Thornton, he took the award on placings countback.

Howard Johnson, responsible for Lee's mounts, took the trainer's title ahead of Nicky Henderson, whose trio of Trabolgan, Juveigneur and Liberthine won less money. The victory of 16-1 shot Fontanesi in the closing County Hurdle put trainer Martin Pipe and jockey Timmy Murphy in third place in their respective divisions.

Thornton took the first two races yesterday, on Penzance in the day's Grade One supporting feature, the Triumph Hurdle, and on French-trained Moulin Riche in one of the innovations, a three-mile novices' event.

The result of the former showed that even after 300 years of selectivity, the shake of the genetic cocktail that produces the thoroughbred is a rum one. To have called Kalinka moderate as a racehorse would have flattered her, but now she is a rare jewel among broodmares, the dam of top-level winners under both codes. Her daughter Soviet Song, by Marju, is a triple Group One heroine; her son Penzance, by Pennekamp, is king of the four-year-old hurdlers.

The white-faced chestnut, trained by Alan King and ridden by Robert Thornton, displayed all his older sister's determination as he stuck his pink muzzle out to repel Faasel by a head. Both siblings race in the colours of the Elite Racing Club, most of whose 15,500 members appeared to cheer the gelding into the hallowed winner's circle.

The victory was consolation to King for the dull performance of fancied World Hurdle contender Crystal D'Ainay the previous day. "I was devastated by that," he said. "I woke up this morning and thought what's the bloody point. But this is the beauty of the game, the way it can turn. I have to say, though, that the final furlong today was the longest furlong of my life."

It takes some bottle to ride round the Cheltenham fences, but a whole crate is due to amateur Colman Sweeney, who steered the half-blind 7-2 favourite Sleeping Night to victory in the Foxhunters. "The horse has hardly any vision in his right eye," said trainer Paul Nicholls. "He's a good horse who has had other problems, and he'll be aimed at the Hennessy."

The day crowd figures were down, but those for the meeting were up, by more than 35,000. Betting turnover was 12 per cent up at an estimated £300m.