Racing: Inca conquers for the real McCoy

Champion jockey puts Cheltenham failures behind him in thrilling Champion Hurdle triumph

Tony McCoy was quarried, not born, and yesterday he found a horse hewn from the same slab of Irish rock. There is plenty of bold talk at the Cheltenham Festival but the Smurfit Champion Hurdle was all about deeds - about the unflinching mutual endeavour of Brave Inca and his rider.

McCoy had only just pulled up, when he invoked another monument to pugnacity. "As Muhammad Ali said: you've got to have the will and the skill and the desire," he said, still panting. "This lad's got everything. He's an absolute machine."

There have been times when the ferocious gifts of the champion jockey have not seemed ideally tailored to the subtle demands of Cheltenham. Indeed, since winning five races here in 1998, the Festival had instead become an increasing source of torment. Last year McCoy drew a blank from 19 rides, and he must have experienced a sinking feeling when caught on the line in the first race yesterday - not least because the winner was ridden by Ruby Walsh. McCoy is goaded by the knowledge that many people would nowadays favour Walsh in the crucibles of Cheltenham and Aintree, and in a way that opening race distilled their different approaches.

McCoy had sent his horse clear on the turn for home and hoped that his unparalleled dynamism would do the rest, whereas Walsh used the stiff finish to pass the tiring leaders and get up in the final stride.

But there are some horses, and some races, that demand more verve than nerve. Brave Inca is the sort of animal who is never better than in a corner, and there has never been a jockey better equipped to harness his courage.

True, there have been many hurdlers with more flair. One of them, Hardy Eustace, had already won the race twice, beating Brave Inca into third last year. Though their differing fortunes since meant that Brave Inca returned as hot favourite, it was Hardy Eustace who still commanded homage. In fact, as he was led down onto the track, one Irishman on the walkway sprinkled his hindquarters with holy water. Little did he realise the demonic forces that were about to be unleashed.

Brave Inca had already come through several hard races during the winter and looked spare and sweaty beforehand. There was a frantic battle for the lead, and as Asian Maze fell heavily at halfway Hardy Eustace took control, apparently galloping with all the bravura of old. McCoy quickly closed him down, however, and with two to jump decided that the time had come to throw down the gauntlet.

The two horses engaged. Something was going to give, and quite possibly it would be the grandstand roof as thousands of Irishmen chose hoarsely between profit and sentiment.

Very few noticed a third Irish runner, Macs Joy, stealthily emerging from the pack under a wonderfully calm ride from Barry Geraghty. Brave Inca edged into the lead two out, and over the last Hardy Eustace finally yielded - perhaps a reflection on his interrupted preparation - and Macs Joy went after the leader.

"They had gone hard and I hoped to pick up the pieces," Geraghty said. "But two strides after the last the winner picked up again and I knew the game was up. He's a true champion."

With McCoy in overdrive, Brave Inca stubbornly maintained a length's advantage to the post. Hardy Eustace faded another three and a half away, still well clear of Al Eile and the first British horse home, Arcalis.

The winner was received with tumult, encouraged by the unusually demonstrative celebrations of his rider. It was a gratifying spectacle: whatever quibbles might be possible, McCoy is a genuine phenomenon and a genuinely decent man with it.

The only Irishman in the place who seemed immune to the pandemic joy was a qualified accountant named Colm Murphy, pale and prematurely bald at 30. Murphy started training in 2000 after six years with Aidan O'Brien, much of which time he spent doing the books.

He sold Brave Inca to a syndicate of seven racing novices and they had a staggering Festival initiation when beating the best young hurdlers around two years ago.

"I'm so grateful to the owners," Murphy said softly. "They have turned down massive offers for this horse. But money can't buy days like this."

With characteristic modesty, he deflected the plaudits towards the horse and McCoy, who replaced Barry Cash last spring. "That was one of those decisions you didn't want to face," Murphy said.

"Barry made this horse. He knows every bone in his body. But Tony and Brave Inca are a match made in heaven. They are both tough as nails. As they crossed the line, I just felt relief." It did not take Walsh long, however, to bring McCoy back down to earth. He gave Dun Doire a dauntless ride in the next race, emerging from nowhere to pass several shattered runners on the climb to the line.

He still has several excellent mounts over the next three afternoons and it may yet prove that 2006 will be known as Ruby's Festival.

But last night McCoy could comfort himself that no rider, of any generation, could have dug another ounce from a horse with infinite reserves of courage.

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