Racing: Morris plots another War strike
It was back to real life for the Gold Cup heroes yesterday in Ireland. At Gowran Park, where the opening contest was the Cheltenham Hangover Hurdle, Conor O'Dwyer was fifth on Montomar in a maiden hurdle and pulled Master Ofthe Chase up in the handicap chase. At Everardsgrange Stables near Fethard, War Of Attrition was out in his paddock, doing what horses do.
The big brown gelding travelled overnight from Gloucestershire to Co Tipperary. "There's not a bother on him," said his delighted trainer, Mouse Morris. "He's unbelievable for a horse after a race like that. You may see him again this season, and Punchestown would be the obvious place, but we'll leave it a couple of weeks and let everyone come down to earth."
Before the race, the Gold Cup was judged sub-standard but there was a different perspective afterwards. It was the third-fastest Gold Cup of the last 50 years. "They went quick, and kept quickening," said Richard Johnson, on sixth-placed Monkerhostin, who is not a slow horse, "and if that was a bad race I'll be amazed." But only time will prove the worth of a young, relatively unexposed athlete like War Of Attrition.
He has a virtually identical profile to the pair who preceded him into the hallowed winners' enclosure, Best Mate and Kicking King. Uncannily, all three finished second in the same race on their first Festival visits. Six years ago Best Mate was beaten by Sausalito Bay in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, in 2003 Kicking King went under to Back In Front, and two years ago Brave Inca beat War Of Attrition.
Best Mate missed Cheltenham in his novice chasing season - it was the foot-and-mouth year - but was campaigned over two miles before stepping up in trip in his second fencing season and winning his first Gold Cup as a seven-year-old, the same age as his successors. Kicking King started 7-2 second favourite for his Arkle, and finished second to Well Chief; War Of Attrition was 11-4 favourite last year before coming in a disappointing seventh behind Contraband.
His first run this season put him right in the top-level mix, and in retrospect it was a neon light of things to come. But at the time his defeat of Kicking King at level weights was put down to the reigning champion's lack of match-practice rather than his rival's superiority.
All is before War Of Attrition, but it should be remembered that Best Mate, who came back again and again, was the exception. Injury prevented Kicking King from defending his crown and O'Dwyer's previous winner, the bright seven-year-old Imperial Call 10 years ago, disappeared without trace.
Morris has his feet grounded. "He's one of the nicest individuals I've seen, strong and rugged. His acceleration can be savage. He outstayed a Grand National winner up the hill, which tells some story. But he's still got to pull out sound of a morning."
Three wins and five places increased Paul Nicholls's lead over Martin Pipe in the trainers' title race and it is now safe to call him champion-elect. It was a horrible week for Pipe, who lost one horse and failed to have a winner for the first time since 1988.
But it could have been so much worse. One of the most terrifying moments of the meeting, one which emphasised the risks faced by riders as well as horses, came during the Gold Cup when Celestial Gold, having given Timmy Murphy a brutal "unseat" at the 10th, carried on riderless in front. Coming again to the fateful fence after a circuit with no one to steer him, he was not to know his rider was still receiving treatment on the ground on the landing side and went at the obstacle like the good, well-schooled horse he is, while behind him the rest of the field bypassed it.
Celestial Gold missed the stricken Murphy and the medical attendants, but only by inches, for he clipped the screens shielding them. Murphy, bruised and sore, gave up his weekend rides but may return tomorrow.
Among the thrills and spills the best contest of the week was, for many, Thursday's Ryanair Chase, which embodied courage, skill and emotion in equal measure. The race went to the splendid 10-year-old Fondmort, narrowly denied his first Festival win on the course he so loves in the same contest 12 months ago.
A massive, daring leap two fences out took the gelding past trailblazing Impek. "He is an absolute delight to ride," said Mick Fitzgerald yesterday, still revelling in the memory. "He has unbelievable scope and you don't have to see a stride, he just telegraphs it to you. Cheltenham is not a place for those with faint hearts, you want a horse that you can dare to take you there. His heart is huge. It's what the meeting is all about."
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