Top-class racing returned to its hallowed ground yesterday in entirely appropriate fashion. Shooting Light's victory in the Thomas Pink Gold Cup was simply a breathtaking master-class by two of the sport's modern immortals, trainer Martin Pipe and jockey Tony McCoy.
And the fact that the winner was the solidly supported 9-4 favourite was heady wine to the faithful, already drunk on the sheer delight of being back here, as they howled him up the hill three lengths clear of Foly Pleasant.
In the aftermath Pipe and McCoy were, as usual, each quick to shift the praise to the other, but both deserve it unreservedly. The Grade Three two-and-a-half-mile race, which has kickstarted the season for the past 41 years in various guises, is no championship, but it is a competitive handicap and takes some winning.
In the space of a few months, Pipe has transformed Shooting Light. The eight-year-old had won three of his 26 outings for his previous trainer, Pat Murphy, and as a novice chaser last season was seemingly exposed as no more than useful and rather inconsistent. But, sprinkled with the Pipe magic dust, he had bolted up at this course last month on his first appearance from Pond House and confirmed his massive improvement yesterday.
After a few sloppy early leaps, Shooting Light warmed to his task and on the final run downhill was travelling ominously easily just behind the leaders on the outside of his field. His red-blinkered head was in front at the third-last and, although Foly Pleasant stuck to his task well enough to ensure that McCoy had to ride out to the line, the winning margin was decisive.
It was Pipe's fourth victory in the race in six years – after Lady Cricket 12 months ago, Cyfor Malta in 1998 and Challenger du Luc in 1996 – and for good measure his other two runners, Exit Swinger and Cadougold, finished third and fourth.
Although Shooting Light was a very smart hurdler in his day, he did not take to fences as fluently and owes his improvement to intensive education jumping loose in Pipe's indoor arena, under the supervision of former stable jockey Jonothan Lower.
"Jumping lots of smaller fences without a rider teaches them to think for themselves, to shorten or lengthen as necessary, and gives them confidence," said the trainer, "and yesterday he had a session of 16 jumps. But he's not the finished article yet and I thought AP gave him a simply brilliant ride," Pipe added.
The measure of the man on top's quickness of thought and ability to react to a situation was clearly visible. After Shooting Light had fluffed some early fences, McCoy immediately removed the pressure and let the angular bay find his own feet, literally.
"I got it wrong at the two fences early on up the straight," the jockey admitted. "He was jumping a bit sticky and I asked him, and he put down instead. I asked him again, and he put down again and, once he'd done it the second time, I realised I could not fire him again. So I just kept squeezing away, and keeping a hold on his head and hoping he would get from A to B as quick as possible that way.
"He is a horse with plenty of ability but he is not a natural jumper and you have to try to get into a rhythm with him. It was a bit of a challenge to get him back into the race and get him travelling and enjoying himself," explained McCoy. "I felt that once I pulled him to the outside he was happier. I think he felt a bit safer without horses around him."
"But I only rode him," McCoy added. "You can see for yourselves what the trainer has done in the last couple of months. And, when you know the horses are 110 per cent all the time, it makes my job so much easier."
Shooting Light is owned jointly by Michael and Maureen Blackburn, who were here to witness his greatest triumph, and John Brown, chairman of bookmakers William Hill, who was listening from Florida. It was at his behest that the gelding moved stables after the break-up of Murphy's marriage to Louise, whose father, the late Richard Holder, was one of Brown's close friends.
As far as a future programme for Shooting Light is concerned, it was very much a case of not looking beyond yesterday. He has been added to the Hennessy Gold Cup betting as second favourite in most lists, but a return to Cheltenham later next month for the Tripleprint Gold Cup looks a more likely option.
The tone of the day – that the sport of jump racing was back in business after the disease- and weather-induced horrors of last season – was set early when the massive crowd, which set a record for the fixture, unloosed the type of full-throated roar rarely heard away from the Festival itself for the first winner of the afternoon, the Nick Henderson-trained hurdler Greenhope in the juvenile novices' hurdle.
"It said it all," admitted Henderson, who was visibly moved. "Just walking into the course again at a meeting like this brought the hairs up on the back of my neck. This is where we want to be. It's what we do it for, it's the holy of holies."
Elsewhere, Ireland's brightest young hurdle prospect, Ned Kelly, lost his unbeaten record at the hands of rock-hard Limestone Lad, who notched the 26th win of his career in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown.
In another sphere, Tiznow, the dual Breeders' Cup Classic hero, has been retired to stud.Reuse content