Cheltenham has had its share of hard-luck stories over the years, but probably nothing to compare with the fate endured by Jane Mangan in yesterday’s Foxhunter Chase.
Having her first ride at the Festival aboard Oscar Delta, Miss Mangan took the final fence four lengths ahead and looked nailed-on for a famous victory before the horse suddenly jinked violently left into the rope rail and unshipped his luckless partner. Salsify, hot favourite to follow up last year’s win in the race, was the chief beneficiary, but even his many backers were shocked almost into silence by the teenager’s misfortune.
“He just thought we were going for another circuit, then he jinked, corrected himself and I wasn’t ready,” she said. “It felt like it was a dream when I hit the ground. Like a Disney film or something.”
Racegoers had also been left stunned earlier in the day, but for entirely different reasons as Our Conor turned the Triumph Hurdle into a procession. It is a long time since a young horse announced himself on the big stage with such a brilliant performance. Those with long memories could come up with the name of only one novice to have created such a favourable impression at the Festival (the ill-fated Golden Cygnet, who coincidentally also won by 15 lengths back in 1978) after Dessie Hughes’ Irish raider brushed aside what was meant to be an above average vintage crop of juveniles. Bookmakers across the board slashed his odds for next year’s Champion Hurdle to 5-1, joint favourite with Hurricane Fly .
Word on the track was that Our Conor was a bit out of the ordinary, but there were similar vibes for Nicky Henderson’s Rolling Ball and Paul Nicholls’ Far West. Something had to give and it was the home challenge that was left floundering.
The rain arrived just when the local weathermen said it would, but the one thing everybody could see through the gloom was the luminous green silks of Bryan Cooper, sitting comfortably just off the pace until the impressive young rider decided to put the rest out of their miseries after jumping the second last.
Far West couldn’t react (though he did rally to finish second) and Rolling Ball was beaten soon after as Our Conor cruised further and further clear, eventually passing the post in glorious isolation to the appreciative roars of a crowd who knew they had witnessed something special.
“You would have to say he is really special after that,” said Hughes. “He jumps well and travels well. The further he went, the better he went and he was able to do it all on the bridle.”
Four Triumph Hurdle winners have gone on to win the Champion Hurdle and if there is a right time to introduce a new superstar, this is it. Hurricane Fly has been top of the pile, off and on, for a while now and a fresh challenge to his crown is most welcome. The rain came in time for At Fishers Cross to bring his ‘A’ game to the Albert Bartlett Hurdle and there was never really an anxious moment for backers of Rebecca Curtis’s favourite. It was a belated first winner of the week for both jockey A P McCoy and owner J P McManus, who also teamed up to win the finale, the Grand Annual Chase, with Alderwood, which meant that the Irish took a total of 14 races over the week, to the home team’s 13.