On this day last year, Davy Russell was nursing a punctured lung as Our Conor and emerging young riding star Bryan Cooper took Cheltenham by storm with a breathtaking win in the Triumph Hurdle.
But the changes in fortune, for both jockeys and, of course, for poor Our Conor who was put down after falling on Tuesday, could hardly have been starker yesterday as Russell stood in for his badly injured colleague to partner Tiger Roll to victory in the same race, a nice little warm-up for his big-race heroics later in the afternoon.
Russell, twice Irish champion jockey and the veteran of 10 previous Festival successes, is freelancing this season after being replaced by Cooper as main rider for the powerful Gigginstown Stud, but was more than happy to don the familiar maroon and white silks on the Gordon Elliott-trained four-year-old.
It was a comfortable win in the end, but hardly in the imperious manner of Our Conor and nobody was knocked over in a rush to snap up the 20-1 offered post-race for next year’s Champion Hurdle.
He had a plain sail, too, avoiding the mayhem at the second flight and seeing out his race just as Russell planned, which is a lot more than could be said for Calipto, yet another hard-luck story for trainer Paul Nicholls and jockey Daryl Jacob.
Not that Elliott should be begrudged his own change of fortune after a week “hitting the crossbar” with his raiders from County Meath.
Calipto was cruising and ready to pounce coming down the hill, but then a leather stirrup broke and Jacob did remarkably well to stay in contention for as long as he did.
“You couldn’t make it up,” said an exasperated Nicholls. “One moment he was going to win and the next it’s over.”
The day was to become worse still for Jacob, taken by ambulance to hospital with a leg injury after being thrown through the rails on his way to the start of the third race. At least by then he and Nicholls had broken their duck for the week when Lac Fontana came fast and late to win the County Hurdle.
“This game’s all about tiny margins,” added Nicholls. “We’ve been unlucky this week, but that’s what it can be like here. And at least we’re on the scoreboard now.”
Ireland’s great day just kept getting better and better with Tiger Roll’s win opening the floodgates for Gigginstown as Very Wood (Paul Carberry), Don Poll (Michael Fogarty) and Savello (Russell again) won the Albert Bartlett Hurdle, the Martin Pipe Hurdle and the Grand Annual Chase respectively to complete an astonishing 82,653-1 four-timer for Ryanair head Michael O’Leary’s racing enterprise.
Very Wood had a deal to find on form and was not really on anybody’s radar, but once favourite Briar Hill had fallen and Kings Palace had folded tamely turning for home, it became a war of attrition between the supposed lesser lights and Noel Meade’s young stayer saw it out best.
Meade revealed that Very Wood was close to being withdrawn on Thursday morning when found to be lame. “The course vet said he had no chance of being sound in time, but we worked on him up and down and a bucket load of pus came out, which was the best thing and when we put the shoe back on today he was fine,” Meade said.
Don Poll was Willie Mullins’ fourth winner at the meeting as once again David Pipe’s attempt to win the race named after his father came to nothing, the heavily backed Vieux Lion Rouge coming home with the stragglers.