Cheltenham Festival 2014: Our Conor death after fall in Champion Hurdle fails to dampen spirits at Cheltenham

The brilliant winner of last year's Triumph Hurdle suffered serious injuries when taking an awful tumble in today's main event

Cheltenham

The lethal injection that saw Our Conor into the next world was already a footnote when Quevega romped to a sixth victory in the OLBG Mares Hurdle not half an hour later. The terrible sadness that gripped the Kildare yard of trainer Dessie Hughes at the loss of their grade one flier was contained largely therein. In the stands the roar grew ever louder and exultant punters made confetti of newspapers to celebrate the winner of the very next race.

At 8-11, Quevaga’s victory in this field was a licence to print money and, of course, romped to the very heart of what this annual celebration is all about. A year ago Our Conor was a big part of the happy narrative whisking the youthful Brian Cooper to victory in the Triumph Hurdle on Gold Cup day.

That success was thought to presage an even greater finale in the feature race of this year’s opening afternoon with Our Conor heavily backed to send Hurricane Fly into retirement. Instead we witnessed the other side of national hunt life.

The death of a horse, however painful the experience might be for owners and trainers, is an integral part of a sport that asks half a ton of beast to clear an obstacle at 30mph with a human being strapped to its back. You cannot have the winner without the loser, and in this game loss frequently has significance beyond the result.

In a specialist rehabilitation unit in Southport, JT McNamara continues his fight for a meaningful life after the fall at this meeting a year ago that left him paralysed. It might have been worse. Racing is not alone in placing the health of contestants at risk.

Back in the Sixties and early Seventies Sir Jackie Stewart had in his little black book the number of the concierge at the best hotels where cars raced, in case it fell to him to have the body of a friend flown home, as it did more than once. Such are the improvements made in safety at circuits and in car construction Formula One has not suffered a driver fatality for 20 years, but marshals have been killed by flying debris when cars inevitably come together.

Boxing, and increasingly rugby, threaten the wellbeing of those who choose to answer the calling. Tragedy prompts the briefest of pauses before the bell gets the next bout under way. The testimony of Our Conor’s owner, Barry Connell, spelled out this sentiment clearly enough.

“The vets were very good, and I have to say that they gave him every chance, but there was nothing that could be done. It’s unfortunate, but it goes with the territory. In this game one minute you can have a winner and the next one of your horses can die. They gave him sedatives straight away so he was in no pain, and they did everything possible to save him. Everything was top class.

“I’ve been in this game 40 years, and one of the reasons everyone loves it is that the highs are very high and the lows are very low. I’ve always admired him. He was only a baby and we knew that if he got placed this year we would be coming back next year with an even better chance.”

A record crowd topping 57,000 piled through the gates on the opening day. Our Conor would have featured on many a betting slip, which for the punter is where attachment starts and ends. As harsh as it sounds the crowd is arguably more discomfited by the traffic getting in and out of the arena.

The A40 from the east is better than the train for checking the form. Since the car moves at glacial pace through Cheltenham’s outer barrios it is possible to scour the cards without breaking the law. Once inside all that is forgotten.

Surface water still scars the landscape hereabouts not that you would have known it watching the horses chase winter clean out of the Cotswolds. This setting has acquired a sacred quality among equine devotees but even to the neutral eye there is inescapable enchantment.

That kick off the final bend into the straight, a swollen peloton of pounding hoof narrowing at the front as the quickest sprint for the line, must rank among the finest set pieces in sport. 

There was much debate in geographical society about the start of spring, old timers railing against the theft from the vernal equinox of the formality of ushering in spring. Meteorologists have brought forward the pleasure to March 1. An alternative might be to go with the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival. The sun appeared bang on cue rendering the top coat and trilby a burden in the parade ring.

Vautour’s victory first up in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle conformed to a familiar template, wealthy owner, the amusingly eponymous Rich Ricci, successful trainer and leading jockey combined devastatingly to claim the prize. Ruby Walsh smashed the field by six lengths in record time despite standing upright in the stirrups when crossing the line.

Back in the parade ring winning trainer Willie Mullins stood at the centre of an excited huddle rattling off his view of the race into tape recorders perched on the end of outstretched hands. Such was the hullaballoo lip reading was essential to have any chance of making sense of his whispered thoughts. 

The return of the triumphant mount is a central to the spectacle though not without its perils for women folk upholstered in designer cloth and heels. Good to soft going is great for the horse, less attractive to those perched on high-end footwear. This must be where catwalk models learn to walk, their knee led, horse-like strut on the ball of the foot essential for keeping stilettos out of the muck.

The last race of the day, the Rewards4Racing Novices Handicap, was won by Present View, owned by Arsenal chairman Sir Chips Keswick. Not a bad memory to take into an away game in Munich.

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