Cheltenham Festival 2014: Jezki glory eclipsed by the sad demise of Our Conor
Dessie Hughes' horse breaks back in fall that has huge impact on race outcome
Tuesday 11 March 2014
It was a well-worked plan, but at considerable cost. By deploying a pacemaker in the Champion Hurdle, the legendary Irish owner JP McManus ensured the lightning gallop that was always going to suit his two prime contenders and duly saw them fight out the finish. But the speed that contributed to Jezki's thrilling neck defeat of My Tent Or Yours had a grimly literal killing effect. In trying to match trailblazing Captain Cee Bee's ferocious early charge, the much less experienced Our Conor took a crashing fall at the third flight and, his back broken, could not be saved.
It was a brutal snuffing out of a talent that had shone so brightly here a year ago, when he had come home in dominant isolation in the Triumph Hurdle. But the truth is that if you buy into the glory of this business – the breathtaking sight of the winner of today's opening contest, Vautour, in full glorious flight in the bright sunshine, the dogged heartening courage of the history-making mare Quevega – then the other side of the coin comes along for the ride. Poor Our Conor's death, such a blow to veteran trainer Dessie Hughes, is sometimes the price the individual must pay for the existence of the breed and the sport.
And the demise of a horse, too, must be put in perspective. On Monday, Jason Maguire was lucky to escape with a fractured sternum and damaged liver after a fall at Stratford.
It is likely that Our Conor's fall had a material influence on the result of the Stan James-sponsored race, for another much-fancied runner, The New One, was brought almost to a standstill as he swerved round his stricken rival and did exceptionally well to claim a strong-finishing third place, just two and a half lengths adrift, after being nursed back into the race by Sam Twiston-Davies. His late charge up the run-in relegated the defending champion Hurricane Fly to fourth.
In so many ways, it was an unsatisfactory edition of the two-mile hurdling crown. But let that not take away from the achievement of the capable and engaging Jessica Harrington, based in Moone, Co Kildare, in coaxing Jezki, behind Hurricane Fly and Our Conor in his past two races, back to his best.
Jezki, ridden by Barry Geraghty, took over from Captain Cee Bee two hurdles from home, followed by My Tent Or Yours, with Tony McCoy in the saddle, and Hurricane Fly, whose forward move prompted a roar from the stands. Going to the last the old champion was still there, with Ruby Walsh's jacket one splash of blue among the green and gold army, but on this occasion younger legs tackled the punishing climb to the finish more effectively.
McCoy had had the choice of the two McManus colourbearers and as he launched My Tent Or Yours, from Nicky Henderson's yard, over the last, for a stride or two he must have thought he had it right. But Jezki, a 9-1 shot, was simply not for passing. "He's a great little horse," said Geraghty, unbeaten in five rides on the six-year-old. "He's always had good form and he didn't really have a lot to find with the best of them. The runner-up was getting to me, for sure, and I needed the line when it came, but he was not giving up for a stride."
Harrington is no stranger to Festival success – the great two-mile chasing champion Moscow Flyer, also ridden by Geraghty, was hers – but this was her first Champion Hurdle. For the first time, Jezki wore a cloth hood – in effect ear-muffs – to cut out the extraneous noise that this crucible of an occasion can produce, and that can upset a horse of high mettle.
"It made a big difference," she said, "as it kept him settled and he got through the preliminaries without getting buzzy. I'd felt his previous two races were a bit messy and he's had little bits of excuses in defeat, but today it all came right and the fast pace definitely suited him."
For The New One's trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies, there was only frustration. "We don't know for certain what would have happened," he said, "but ours was beaten by far less than the ground he lost."
Jezki gave McManus his fifth Champion Hurdle victory, after three from Istabraq and one from Binocular, making him the most successful owner in the race's history, and also the first with a one-two. "For me, this season centred round the Champion Hurdle," he said, "as I haven't a Gold Cup horse and I'm unlikely to win the Grand National. So full marks to everyone, Jessie, Nicky and Eddie [Harty, Captain Cee Bee's trainer]. It has been a very special day."
As it was for Walsh and Willie Mullins, despite defeat for Hurricane Fly and his much-fancied Champagne Fever being pipped by 33-1 outsider Western Warhorse under a jubilant Tom Scudamore in the Arkle Trophy. The pair combined with Vautour, whose display of dominance in the Supreme Novices Hurdle was such that it is probably good news for those with Champion Hurdle horses that he is to tackle fences next year, and the wonderful Quevega.
The little 10-year-old is now the only horse to have won the same Festival race, the OLBG Mares' Hurdle, six times, an astonishing feat of training by Mullins. Today, she had to fight to reel in her stablemate Glens Melody only in the last few strides, but her racing heart took her to the line in front. "She was one of our missions," said Mullins, hot favourite for the week's trainer title. "I just love her and anything else we do now this week is a bonus."
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