The performances of Graham Bradley, Jamie Osborne and Declan Murphy were each a masterclass in an aspect of the jockeys' art. Bradley, on the error-prone Royal Athlete, found the perfect stride at every fence. Osborne, riding Leotard in the handicap hurdle, set a carefully judged pace, waiting in front and then quickening again at the last flight. But it was Murphy who won the award for the best ride of the meeting with his demonstration that the most basic attribute for any jump jockey is courage.
As Osborne crossed the line on Leotard, Murphy was extracting himself from the landing side of the second-last hurdle after a cartwheeling fall from Arcot. Thirty-five minutes later he was setting off in the Mackeson Gold Cup on Bradbury Star. Many of the spectators could not believe it. Nor could Murphy's body.
'I had a headache which got considerably worse as time went on,' he said yesterday. 'Throughout the race it was causing a lot of discomfort. I was always in control, but basically it was a question of how long I could go on in that sort of pain.'
Understatement is another of Murphy's talents. 'It was quite difficult trying to cope with everything. You're travelling at 30mph and jumping fences and you've got to concentrate so hard. If you've got a headache, the normal thing is to sit down and close your eyes, but I couldn't really close my eyes around there.'
As he came down the hill for the last time, once more chasing Osborne on Egypt Mill Prince, things got worse and he started to see 'two Jamie Osbornes'. He might have had real problems if he had managed to beat only one of them home, but Murphy's rapport with Bradbury Star is such that, almost on auto-pilot, he timed his challenge perfectly and went on to win by seven lengths.
But still his ordeal was not over. 'As I passed the winning post, my body just said that's enough.' As he dismounted, Murphy seemed close to collapse. 'My blood pressure had fallen very low and they wouldn't let me out of the medical room until it was normal again. That's what pain will do to you if you keep fighting it.'
As he crossed the line, Bradbury Star appeared almost as exhausted as his rider, but that proved only how slow the going had become after torrential overnight rain. His targets are the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day and the Gold Cup, for which Ladbrokes offer 16-1.
The latter race is also the ultimate aim for Royal Athlete, though given his history of infirmity it would be foolish to back him until five minutes before the off. Few wanted to back him at all on Saturday, and he was sent off at 11-1 while Jenny Pitman's other runner, Garrison Savannah, started joint-favourite at 9-2.
'We thought he'd run a big race,' Mark Pitman, the trainer's son, said yesterday. 'But backers thought that with 12st on his back he'd get beaten.' Weight means little to Royal Athlete, though, so long as the ground is soft and, particularly if Bradley is holding the reins, he is clearly still a forceful opponent. The partnership may be suspended, though, if Royal Athlete runs in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury on Saturday week, as Bradley is committed to ride Black Humour for Charlie Brooks.
The Mackeson announced the arrival of the jumps season proper, but it was not just at Cheltenham that the call was heard. Throughout the country new names were giving notice that they may soon be jostling aside the old.
At Ayr, Whispering Steel took his winning sequence over fences to six, after which Gordon Richards, his trainer, said: 'He is the best staying chaser I've had since Titus Oates and Playlord, and he will be entered for the Welsh National and the King George.'
Whispering Steel is already entered for the Hennessy, but will not run unless both Jodami and Carvill's Hill are absent, giving him a place in the handicap proper. In another tribute to a rider who deserves a mention with the best, Richards said: 'If he's got 10st, Neale Doughty wouldn't be able to ride and that wouldn't be fair to him as he's done all the spadework on the horse.' Strangely, Coral make Whispering Steel 9- 2 favourite for the Hennessy, news which prompted Richards to describe anyone wanting to back him as 'crazy'.
At Nottingham, too, there was future promise. Native Mission made an excellent start to his career over fences, and may attempt to follow up as early as Ascot's meeting next Saturday.
Declan Murphy, though, expects to return to action even sooner. If he passes the doctor at Leicester today, he could hardly have a more appropriate ride in the Thorpe Satchvile Hurdle. Cultured.
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