Whether or not Bob Lester is still in business this morning remains to be seen but, in truth, he may not actually care very much. The shaven-headed Cheshire-based publican, mine host at the Red Cow at Nantwich, issued a blanket invitation to the crowd from the winner's podium as he lofted the huge silver punchbowl that goes with victory in the Stayers' Hurdle. "See you all tonight," he roared, "we'll drink the place dry!"
Iris's Gift, quite beautifully ridden by Barry Geraghty, thwarted Baracouda's hat-trick in the Grade One marathon by a length and a half, sweet revenge for his three-quarter length defeat as a novice 12 months ago. There was no fluke about the result; an exceptional champion was dethroned by a better one on the day. The pair drew 13 lengths clear of Crystal D'Ainay as they duelled up the hill, with trailblazer Solerina the same distance away fourth.
It was a fine training performance by Jonjo O'Neill, for Iris's Gift is not a straightforward horse, physically or mentally, and had raced only once previously this term. "He had a whole series of little niggling setbacks," said O'Neill, "nothing you could put your finger on, but he just wasn't ready to cope with full training. We gave up on the first half of the season but when Christmas came and he still wasn't himself, I admit I was worried. Then he took a turn for the better and we were able to run him at Haydock in February. But I wasn't sure I'd got it right until 100 yards from the line."
It was at that point that the grey seven-year-old, who had been joined by the stalking Baracouda in the air at the last, asserted his authority and drew clear. It takes two to make a thriller and the French crack was given a generous reception.
It was a shame that his trainer and rider, François Doumen and son Thierry, did not reciprocate. "Nothing to say," sulked a stony-faced Doumen père. "We were best last year, the other horse this." It seems some only sing when they're winning.
As expected, the Irish mare Solerina set the pace, but not a breakneck one, part of a cunning plan hatched by her young rider, Garry Hutchinson, and Geraghty, the more experienced man. "I had a word with Garry," said Geraghty, "and stressed that if he went off too fast he would only be playing into Baracouda's hands. Iris's Gift travels so well, is hard and tough, and has exceptional gears for a three-miler."
The jury is still out as to whether Iris's Gift will defend next year or, like Baracouda, embark on a novice chasing career. "He's the type to jump a fence, but he's not so bad at the hurdles," grinned O'Neill, before giving credit to the gelding's lad, Simon Olley. "He's done a great job in getting him switched off," he said. "At home, the horse is a bit like his owner. A lunatic."
The result of the Triumph Hurdle maintained the race's reputation as a betting minefield; the Philip Hobbs-trained winner Made In Japan was a 20-1 shot, two-length runner-up Chief Yeoman started at 40-1 and third-placed Top Strategy at 33-1. It also provided a moment of Festival history, as the descriptively named victor is the first horse foaled on the shores of Nippon to score at the meeting.
Made In Japan carries the colours of property developer Terry Evans, but was bred by Sheikh Mohammed with a different sort of glory in mind. Gangly and backward, he was sold as a yearling and as a three-year-old with just one win on Lingfield's all-weather on his Flat cv. Hobbs talent-spotted him at the sales for 35,000gns.
A three-timer for Paul Nicholls yesterday through Earthmover in the Foxhunters, St Pirran in the Grand Annual and Sporazene in the County Hurdle, to add to Azertyuiop's Queen Mother Champion Chase on Wednesday, made him the meeting's leading trainer, one winner in front of O'Neill.
The victory of Sporazene was not without controversy. A new 48-hour declaration stage meant that the Somerset trainer had left top-weight Rigmarole, unplaced in Tuesday's Champion Hurdle, in the race, thus pushing most of the runners out of the handicap. After Rigmarole's withdrawal because of lameness, his stablemate was one of only five runners in a field of 23 racing of his correct handicap mark and the favourably weighted grey held on by just half a length from Hawadeth. His victory meant that Ruby Walsh claimed his first jockeys' crown at the fixture, pipping Richard Johnson.
The veteran Earthmover rolled back time in the hunters' contest, notching his second win six years after his first. The 13-year-old stayed on to repel Ireland's Never Compromise and give 33-year-old Rilly Goschen, who rides out for Nicholls, her day of days and end his honourable career at the top.
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