Racing: Irish thrilled by a St Patrick's Day greenwash in Gold Cup
Saturday 18 March 2006
The prize-money won by War Of Attrition in the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup goes to Michael O'Leary, but the Ryanair boss knew his success was shared by an entire nation. The favourite, Beef Or Salmon, could not keep to the script on St Patrick's Day but the three other Irish runners finished first, second and third.
The Gold Cup "greenwash" crowned a record-breaking week for the thousands of Irish here. In War Of Attrition, moreover, they have a legitimate new champion. The widespread assumption had been that the biggest field ever to assemble for the Gold Cup betrayed a lack of quality, and most came to bury Caesar, not praise him. But when War Of Attrition sprang over the last fence with such rampant purpose, he demanded recognition as the master of a new empire.
He had been well beaten by Beef Or Salmon in deep ground at the Leopardstown Christmas meeting, but earlier in the season at Punchestown he beat none other than Kicking King, winner of this race last year.
O'Leary, a relative newcomer to the Turf, yielded to Mouse Morris and Conor O'Dwyer - two wily Cheltenham veterans respectively charged with training and riding War Of Attrition - in declining the natural temptation of the Ryanair Chase in favour of the Gold Cup.
And in the final days before the Festival, there was a groundswell of confidence in his chance in the drying conditions.
Even so, Beef Or Salmon held firm at the head of the betting on another raw, grey day the Cotswolds. Not that his demeanour before the race was encouraging. He was bucking his hindlegs so neurotically in the preliminaries that Paul Carberry abandoned the parade before it had even started.
Three previous attempts had suggested that Beef Or Salmon would be forever inhibited by this undulating track. Carberry tried hunting him round, and was stone last with a circuit to run, but he made mistakes at the 10th and 13th fences.
O'Dwyer had meanwhile kept wide of the packed field and War Of Attrition jumped and galloped with energy throughout. Barry Geraghty had taken it up on Forget The Past down the far side but O'Dwyer took over approaching the second last, with only Hedgehunter in meaningful pursuit. The proven stamina of the Grand National winner looked certain to tell approaching the last, but he could not discover the faintest hint of weariness in War Of Attrition, who maintained an advantage of two and a half lengths up the hill. It was seven lengths back to Forget The Past, with the French runner, L'Ami, confining the British to no better than fifth place with Take The Stand.
Next was Monkerhostin, who made a bad early error, while Beef Or Salmon made only laboured progress into 11th of the 18 finishers.
Celestial Gold completed a desperate meeting for Martin Pipe by unseating Timmy Murphy at the tenth. Murphy was given treatment behind screens and the fence was omitted on the next circuit, but not by the riderless horse who very nearly polished off his prostrate partner. Fortunately Murphy escaped with a bruising.
O'Dwyer led his mount back to the familiar delirium. Remarkably, the Irish have now claimed the three most prestigious prizes at the Festival in successive years - with different horses in every case. Just three weeks short of his 40th birthday, O'Dwyer will be postponing any thought of retirement. While his Festival CV embraces only four wins, remarkably they comprise two Champion Hurdles and two Gold Cups.
"Hopefully the horse will be back here next year and I'd hate to be watching on telly," he said. "He jumped impeccably and even the last two fences he stood off. I saw Ruby coming but the way my horse jumped the second-last nothing was going to go by him."
Morris himself trained one of the Festival stalwarts of the Eighties, Buck House, and he remains as laconic and cool as ever, studiously dishevelled as he lit a victory cigarette. "Conor gave him a super ride for an older fellow!" he said. "It was a great race for the Irish. I have always had a lot of faith in this horse, have always said he is one of the best I have ever had and I think he proved that. If you go back two years he ran Brave Inca to a neck over hurdles here. That tells you how much 'boot' he has, and if he stayed as well, you have yourself a serious horse."
Hedgehunter's run salvaged a "disastrous" meeting for his trainer. "I never thought I would be so delighted to finish second in my life but I am after the way mine have been running," Willie Mullins said. "I was so disappointed with the way Mister Hight ran in the first that I came very close to taking him out. He will look well in at Aintree now even with top weight, because the handicapper would give him another 8lb to 10lb for that run."
He is now as short as 4-1 favourite with Ladbrokes for a second Grand National. It is not as if the British will have any illusions about winning it. "Nowadays we're keeping all the good ones," O'Leary grinned. "We save the rubbish to sell to you!"
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